Centre for Ageing Better
4 Apr 2019
Rachel Monaghan, who manages our joint funding programme on age-friendly volunteering, discusses the importance of recognising the ‘informal’ contributions that can sometimes go unnoticed.
This is the season for glitzy ‘volunteer of the year’ award events. It’s a time of celebration – these events are a great way to highlight the amazing voluntary work that so many people do.
But there’s a risk that much of what people do to help out in their local communities can go unnoticed.
That’s why we’re delighted to see that this year’s International Volunteer Day celebrates local community volunteers and the way they contribute to the resilience of their communities. It’s one of the things we’re looking to explore as part of our joint funding programme with DCMS, piloting new ways of supporting and sustaining older volunteers.
We found older people’s contributions are many and varied. Often, those who might not take part in more ‘formal’ volunteering are contributing in their communities, supporting those around them and benefitting from the interactions this generates.
It is important that these contributions are recognised and valued. Here are just a few fantastic examples of what I mean:
Through our community research in Castle Ward in Scarborough, organisations based in the area saw new opportunities to help people feel engaged and to initiate contact with others. They identified in particular how the small act of saying hello to someone can make a difference to their day, and so the Say Hello Coast campaign was born.
The campaign hosted a series of community events in the area involving local businesses, voluntary organisations and community groups to encourage people to come together, enjoy themselves, try something new and meet people – all starting with a single, simple action.
Many users of the Muslim Welfare House in Finsbury Park, north London, also feel socially isolated, but getting involved in activities at the centre helps to forge a sense of community and enables older users who usually receive help to act as helpers as well.
The centre acts as a hub for the whole community to come together to socialise and feel a sense of belonging. As well as receiving support and services, some users give back by cooking for homeless people, joining local campaigns and organising trips together.
The blurring of roles between helper and helped builds confidence and friendships, and is a win-win: the centre gets practical help and the users report an increased sense of well-being and social connection.
Our research in Holbeck in Leeds found that informal helping out can be a first step for people going through life changes, letting them get involved in ways that suit their interests and capacity.
For example, community researchers spoke to one woman who had joined a social group as she got very depressed after losing her husband. Her love of cooking was recognised, so she started helping in the kitchen as a volunteer and ended up getting paid work for four hours a week.
Her experience of building new connections and getting involved in her community mirrors the six principles of age-friendly, inclusive volunteering identified in the review.
Our joint funding programme with DCMS will support up to five projects to pilot better ways for people in later life to sustain contributions across the spectrum of volunteering. This programme recognises the importance of informal volunteering and seeks to encourage links and pathways between formal and informal contributions.