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Volunteering offers life balance, fulfilment after paid employment ends

Many retirees find fresh purpose by generously giving back to the community. Their work is warmly welcomed by a not-for-profit sector that simply wishes there were more contributing.

For Suzanne Kuntz (pictured), a former trainer, consultant and corporate head of operations, retirement was to be embraced. When she took the plunge in her late 50s, she was keen to travel and return to her home country, the US, whenever possible.

But in between travel, she felt a sense of irrelevance after paid work had stopped, and it took her some time to find the right balance that finally came via regular volunteering.

She now works in the palliative care program of a local hospital as a life story writer, working with people nearing the end of their lives who want to capture their life in words for their families and friends. It is a fantastic way for her to keep connected to the community while helping others.

Kuntz says: “We create a small book with photos that shares the story of who they were and who they still are. I want to be of service and make a positive impact in people’s lives, so this work fits perfectly. And, by nature, I’m a curious person. Each time I begin work with a new client, a whole new world opens up to me.  It’s fascinating to hear someone’s story in their own words and help bring it to life for their loved ones.”

For retirees, volunteering can provide innumerable benefits – not just a way to keep busy and engaged. An American study found that older Americans who volunteered more than 100 hours a year had better mental and physical outcomes than those who didn’t.

Volunteering Australia CEO Mark Pearce says: “Volunteering speaks to the ability to mitigate a lot of circumstances that retirees can find themselves in – loneliness, depression and disconnection.” So much so, it’s being discussed as a piece of Australia’s future national health policy.

At its core, volunteering is about people, simultaneously a deeply personal and collective pursuit. According to the new national strategy for volunteering, launched in 2023, the benefits include:

  • Reduces loneliness, social isolation and depression.
  • Increases physical activity and assists with cardiovascular health.
  • Reduces stress and lowers blood pressure.
  • Boosts social activities and connection.
  • Connect with others and create strong social networks.
  • Can maintain or improve memory and thinking skills.
  • Boost in fun and happy emotions.
  • Improves overall well-being and quality of life.

Christine Rigby, a retiree in her 70s and long-time volunteer, spends two days a week at The Smith Family working in the office, answering phones, mentoring children and helping reading groups.

  • Rigby says: “I think my health would be much worse if I wasn’t doing something in the community.”

    She began volunteering many years ago while still working full-time in education. But in retirement there is greater flexibility – and none of the guilt if you can’t turn up.

    As she says, “The Smith Family and other charities don’t make you feel bad about not being there; they are just so grateful to have your help. It also gets me out of the house – I love my husband but if I didn’t have The Smith Family, I’d go insane.”

    Volunteers offer an invaluable asset – their time – to contribute to activities and causes they care about without any expectation of reward. In this way it is like donating where donors offer a different kind of asset – their money – to help solve the problems that concern them.

    Both are critically important to the lifeblood of Australian civil society. Rigby is also a donor to The Smith Family, sponsoring a disadvantaged seven-year-old by helping with books, uniforms and excursions. Leaving money in a will is another option.

    “I’ve never had children of my own so my relationship with my sponsor child is one I enjoy. My husband and I financially support the causes that ring true to us; we know what it’s like to grow up with financial challenges,” she adds.

    Kuntz and Rigby are two of hundreds of thousands of volunteers, but unfortunately their numbers are declining at the very time the need is greatest.

    Australia has experienced a significant decline in volunteering hours since 2001, a trend magnified by COVID when the number declined from 36 per cent of the population in 2019 to 26.7 per cent in 2022. At the same time the demand for volunteers remains high with 83 per cent of organisations reporting an immediate or near future need for them.

    The 2023 national strategy for volunteering’s vision is ‘volunteering is the heart of Australian communities.’ It has a mission to get more Australians involved more often, to have volunteering valued and for people, individually and collectively, to realise their potential to create thriving communities.

    Pearce says: “Again, we come back to this fundamental sense of involvement and participation within community, and the real benefits that comes from connecting or reconnecting in an ongoing way with community that they may not have otherwise done.”

    The Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, Dr Andrew Leigh, recently addressed a group of volunteers in Queensland during National Volunteer Week where he noted: “Volunteers are a balm in difficult times. You walk towards challenge. You give your strength to others in strife. You commit to walking alongside them in difficulties. Not walking in front, or behind, or influencing them in your self-interest. But committing to others’ well-being and needs in a true act of equality. Through each of these gifts, you create belonging, connection and community.”

    Gifts, indeed.

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