Volunteers: Aging in Place

Did you know that James Bay is home to the largest concentration of seniors in the country?18.4% of the population in Victoria is a senior, meaning that not only does our community have a higher than average number of seniors, we also have a higher than average number of senior volunteers. And, as the large baby boom generation born between 1946 and 1965 reaches 65 years old we will have even more seniors volunteering.

For many years, the number of new seniors entering their retirement years and volunteering seemed to keep pace with the number of senior volunteers ‘downsizing’ their volunteer commitments. But, times have changed and seniors are healthier than ever before, living longer, and staying engaged in their communities and in their volunteer work. For the first time, we have an increasingly large number of volunteers aging in place and community agencies are now working with up to 4 generations of senior volunteers.

Organizations and volunteer managers recognize that while we often use the same term for people between the age of 65 and 105, individual senior volunteers have very different needs and very different reasons for volunteering and we cannot use the same management principles and set of expectations for every demographic group. Best practice says we have to anticipate the needs of our volunteers and our volunteer programs and adjust our practices to serve both.

After volunteering for 1, 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years, senior volunteers experience a wide range of feelings and choices regarding their volunteer work. Most seniors continue to volunteer because they know they contribute in meaningful ways and volunteering adds value to the community and their lives. When asked, senior volunteers also share their fears about aging in place – some have concerns that if they leave they can not be replaced and they worry about the consequences to the organization, others are concerned that volunteering adds stress and impacts their health, or organizational needs change and they no longer feel like they can keep up. Organizations also struggle to evolve volunteer positions filled by senior volunteers – often because they are afraid of the impact on volunteers who do not easily embrace change.

In the best cases, organizations have embraced the opportunity to ask senior volunteers what they want and need, what they need to learn, and how they will evolve their roles to meet their own emerging needs  and the needs of the organization. The most successful senior volunteer stories include elements of respect, good communication, a shared vision, and a plan for when and how change will happen.

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