By Renee Langmuir
I am not the volunteer type. Never would I believe in my retirement that I would be a volunteer in at least a handful of nonprofits in my area. As a teacher and educator for 34 years, I thought I had given enough back to society. In addition, I have issues with setting boundaries and speaking up, not good qualities for a volunteer. But – volunteering has allowed me to register voters at a naturalization ceremony, care for goats and sheep on a regular basis, and be part of the world-level horticultural team at Longwood Gardens, all experiences I could never have imagined.
Danger is lurking
All is not rosy for the senior volunteer. Although I suspect few take on the physical challenges I have set for myself, dangers lurk for the aging body. After all, I never returned to my county pandemic assignment of calling seniors to schedule vaccines when I had to sit on the “orphan” office chair and use a cell phone for three hours straight. The young, paid staff had no idea how formidable this task became without body-friendly equipment.
We all know the lofty benefits of volunteering: giving back to society, finding new friendships, and having a placeholder or two in one’s weekly routine. All are well-documented as being almost entirely beneficial for seniors. But there is very little out there which speaks to the fact that the senior volunteer is aging each year of her assignment.
Blood cells are the culprits
Between the ages of 60 and 80, there are significant declines in the efficiency of the heart and immune system, and declines in hearing and vision, memory, and the functioning of the bones and joints. Science journalist Ian Sample, writing in The Guardian, in June 2022, reports that a team at Cambridge University found that the rapid decline in physical health after age 65 might be due to a great decrease in stem cells which provide the red and white blood cells with their nutrients. Before the age of 65, these cells draw on 20-200,000 different types of stem cells in the body. After the age of 65, these same cells draw on only 10-20 different types of stem cells. In this situation, a cell mutation can have a dramatic, negative effect on the body, especially in the areas of immunity and blood diseases.
Personally, I’ve experienced and continue to experience adverse events which affect the length of my volunteer stints. After volunteering for a weekly giveaway for sidelined agricultural workers during the pandemic, I good-naturedly endured packing up vegetables and unpacking staples for a weekly three-hour shift OUTDOORS from August until May. The church, which provided the venue, would not allow the volunteers to be indoors during the pandemic. Clement weather was no problem, but that winter had arctic and polar notes, which could not be ignored.
In my work as a livestock volunteer, my darling female goats were dominated by one, mean male. He would roam around the barn looking for attention, locking horns with the ladies, and sneak up to me with some pretty, significant “love taps.” As a garden volunteer, I found last summer to be one of the hottest on record. At 7:30 AM, the sun felt like it was 12 PM. I had to buy “farmer sleeves” because of all the biting insects I encountered while deadheading. One of my volunteer colleagues damaged his shoulder shoveling mulch, and another was stung by a hidden hive of bees. I will not be returning to that venue this summer.
People pleasers are not kind to themselves
All these experiences are forcing me to be more reflective and politely assertive as a volunteer. A good part of the responsibility for these adverse volunteer experiences stems from an inability to set boundaries. Many good-natured volunteers treat these gigs the same as they did their former jobs. Those of us with longstanding boundary issues make others the priority, not ourselves. Emotional Intelligence Master Coach Svetlana Whitener, writing in Forbes, October 2020, believes speaking up for one’s needs actually creates a fairer environment, which benefits the institution as much as the volunteer.
What can help
Ffwd.org, a website for tech nonprofits, offers some excellent suggestions for retaining volunteers which would go a long way for those of us volunteering in a physical capacity. Volunteers should always receive personal check-ins from the staff. It would be a great idea for volunteer supervisors working with those of us in a physical role to check in every few months to see if the requirements of the position still work with our current state of health. Another idea is to always make sure the volunteer knows where support is available. Supervisors are almost always extremely busy, but someone needs to be designated as an on-site “go-to” person. Ongoing feedback and recognition are essential. No one wants to be a major contributor of “sweat equity” and feel unappreciated. Gratitude in the form of emails, tokens, and shout-outs helps retain hard-working volunteers. Another novel idea is encouraging volunteers to take some time off every few months. After all, volunteers don’t have scheduled vacations or personal days!
Responsibility is 50/50
I believe the responsibility for protecting valuable volunteers is equally divided between the individual and the institution. For the institution, initlive.com finds that in 2023, volunteer work is worth approximately $30/hour. In addition, 85% of volunteers in non-profits contribute financially to the organization and donate 52 hours/per year, on average. The advantages of volunteer retention are obvious.
Aging volunteers need to acknowledge where they are in their lifespans. I’ve been told many times that supervisors do not see us as employees. They are grateful for whatever we can provide. It’s never too late in life to set a firm boundary. Not only will wintery chills, insect bites, and sore shoulders be avoided, but feeling more in control of life will be easier in other realms.
Renee Langmuir has been an educator for 34 years in Pennsylvania public schools and as Director of Student Teaching at a local university. Several years ago, there was a perfect alignment of personal, family, and work-related issues which resulted in a very abrupt and unplanned retirement. Because the teaching of writing to children was a lifelong passion, and professional writing was always part of her job description, Renee decided to chronicle the transition from the world of work to the world of retirement in a series of personal essays. As each challenge arose, research was done, and an essay was penned. These musings are now housed on the website, www.therookieretiree.com, for the benefit of the growing cohort of the newly retired. Renee is the mother of two adult children and lives with her husband in Chadds Ford, Pa. Besides writing, she spends her spare time as both a livestock and garden volunteer.