Volunteering does not need to stop for over 75s

Rates of volunteering fall sharply in the over-75s, yet evidence shows that older volunteers may benefit a lot from it. This blog presents the key findings from an evaluation of the Residents as Volunteers project, which aimed to support over-75s living in Abbeyfield care homes to volunteer. It will discuss what barriers to volunteering in later life exist and how they can be overcome. Find out more in the full evaluation report or the summary version.

Volunteering in later life has many benefits

In the UK, approximately 421,000 people live in care homes with the vast majority aged 65-years and over. Typically, older people living in care or residential homes have a number of health conditions and experience significant life changes. It is estimated that depression affects 40% of care home residents. This project was motivated by the growing evidence around the benefits of volunteering, especially for older people. It was believed that engagement in volunteering activities would have a positive impact on the wellbeing of residents living in care homes, which was later confirmed by findings from the evaluation. Residents who had taken part in volunteering activities reported multiple benefits. Residents felt that volunteering had the most positive impact on their emotional and social wellbeing, but it was also found beneficial for physical and mental wellbeing (see below).

Reported benefits of volunteering on wellbeing

  • Fun and enjoyment
  • A sense of purpose
  • Feeling useful
  • Sense of achievement
  • Increased confidence
  • Reduced feelings of loneliness
  • Feeling of belonging
  • Building outside connections
  • Improved social dynamics
  • Distraction from health conditions
  • Keeping fit
  • Challenging the brain
  • Stimulation

Growing the volunteer base can be challenging

The evaluation also shed light on the specific practical and cultural or psychological barriers faced by this population. The most common barrier perceived by residents was feeling too old and having a health condition preventing them from getting involved. Cultural and psychological barriers included lack of confidence, narrow views of volunteering or anti-volunteering sentiment. Those barriers made it challenging to get residents to take part in volunteering activities. Although, the project managed to recruit over 70 residents in year two, it seems that most residents who got involved, were already volunteering prior to the project or had volunteered at some point in their lives. It was far more difficult to reach residents that had never volunteered before, a fact that isn’t specific to this population but true for many volunteering programmes and settings.

Supporting volunteers requires time and skills

The evaluation didn’t only find barriers on resident level but also for staff and homes themselves. Most common barriers on home level include existing social interactions, staff to resident ratio, existing volunteering culture and non-supportive environment or lack of management buy-in. Furthermore, staff support was crucial for the success of the project and a positive volunteering experience. The degree of support needed varied greatly by residents, homes and roles. Substantial time and skills were needed by staff for volunteer recruitment, role development and ongoing support. Many staff found it difficult to fit those tasks within their normal job, this was particularly true for care staff that often had to prioritise caring responsibilities over supporting volunteering activities.

Successful ways to overcome barriers

There are many ways in which those barriers can be overcome. Within the project, successful recruitment adopted an open language and focused on specific roles rather than recruiting volunteers. Furthermore, some homes successfully managed to address more specific barriers by implementing some of the following strategies:

  • Continuously encouraging and motivating residents to overcome confidence related barriers.
  • Tailoring roles to residents’ needs and providing a great variety of roles, including low commitment and flexible roles.
  • Creating networks with the local community to overcome mobility issues and financial barriers.
  • Pairing up residents with external volunteers for specific or too physical roles
  • Raising awareness of volunteering opportunities and celebrating what is happening, e.g. through activity notice boards or newsletters.
  • Running fundraising events to provide money for some activities and groups.

Find out more

To find out more about the project and detailed findings from the evaluation have a look at the full evaluation report or the summary version. You can also sign up to our free webinar on 18 October 2018 in which we will discuss the findings in more depth.

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Lisa Hornung is a data and research manager in the research team at NCVO. She leads on the data collection, analysis and communication of the UK Civil Society Almanac. More widely, she helps to ensure that NCVO remains at the forefront of voluntary sector data collection and analysis.

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