Exploring Retirement


Welcome to the eleventh edition of Exploring Retirement! This month we are looking at volunteering. Charities and volunteer organisations are quick to recommend it to the retired but what does it have to offer us and is it time for a rethink of how volunteers are perceived by the organisations which depend upon them?.

Guest contributor, Michael McSorley has considerable experience of volunteering. This month Michael continues to share this experience and reflect on the rewards to be gained from giving of your time.

Feedback from readers is welcomed. Why not send us your thoughts on any experience of volunteering you may have? Write to editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.


It is an interesting fact that while retired people may have more time to devote to volunteering, yet the older age group are less likely to volunteer their time. Is this selfishness on behalf of older people or is something else at work? Perhaps older people are already busy looking after grandchildren or even their own parents? I can certainly think of examples of both from my own circle of friends and neighbours.

American Professor Laura Carstensen has another theory for why older people are frugal with their time. Professor Carstensen has developed an approach she calls socio-emotional selectivity theory. In essence, as we approach the end of life, so we become more selective about how we allocate this reducing resource. This change in perspective brings with it a new way of evaluating what is worth one's time and attention. It's not about disengagement but more about an emphasis on the quality of the experience.

During my Churchill Fellowship visit to the United States, I had the opportunity to talk with Reed Dewey, Director Volunteer Centres and National Partnerships at the Points of Light Foundation - the world's largest organisation dedicated to volunteer service.

Reed considered that the next generation of potential volunteers would be very different from the previous generation. The "baby boomers" are often well educated and many will have held very responsible positions in society. They will seek roles that make appropriate use of the skill sets they have developed over many years. He believed that there needs to be a shift from an authoritarian approach were the volunteer is expected to carry out the tasks they are given, to a more egalitarian regime were volunteers are trained for leadership, with shared decision making. In this paradigm, volunteers would be encouraged to set the direction and involve their team in planning details. There would also be a focus on developing team members. Reed believes that older people want:

  1. The power to design their own work
  2. The power to exercise independent judgement and individual initiative
  3. The power to fully participate in organisational decision making

Another question he considered important was "How do you retain the volunteers you've got?" He felt that having invested in training them, too many organisations found that they stopped volunteering after a relatively short time. How best to offer volunteers recognition and awards? He suggested replacing the "recognition lunch" with a menu of options e.g. gift certificates/free tickets/discount cards etc. Rewards for high performance could include the opportunity to present a report at a Board Meeting/paid attendance at a Conference/co-authoring a journal article with staff/serving as a media spokesperson/supervising other volunteers/interviewing new volunteers/training new members of staff/becoming a Board member.

I think more people might volunteer their time if they could be offered interesting work. Here are some volunteer positions listed recently on the Volunteer Now web site:

We would be very interested to hear your views. Or, if you know of an unusual volunteering opportunity, do let us know. Write to editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.

Featured Activity

Hospital Volunteers

Here are three of the less usual roles that volunteers can undertake in a hospital setting:

Clown Doctors

A stay in hospital can be an anxious time for a child or a young person and also their families. Laughter and play has long been recognised as a great help for young patients. And nothing relaxes a family more than seeing their child laugh and smile. One unusual volunteer role is becoming a "clown doctor".

The Northern Ireland ClownDoctors is a team of carefully chosen, professional performers who are specially trained to work in hospitals. The ClownDoctors are a part of the team of care, working with medical staff, hospital play specialists and family members.

The ClownDoctors help create fun, laughter, play, communication, and creativity on the wards. They visit children who are chronically and acutely ill, and who are hospitalised on a long-term or repeat basis; children who are in hospice care; children and young people with severe or profound disabilities; and those who are life-limited.

To get some idea of what clown doctors get up to, take a look at the accompanying video by clicking here.

Hospital Radio

Ever fancied yourself as a DJ or being a presenter on the radio? Well what's stopping you? Hospital radio is a form of broadcasting produced specifically for the in-patients of hospitals. Hospital radio has been found to be beneficial to patients lifting their mood and aiding recovery. There are hundreds of hospital radio stations in the UK, almost all are members of the Hospital Broadcasting Association (HBA), which was set up by stations for their mutual benefit and does not govern or run them. Hospital radio stations are staffed and managed by volunteers.To find a local hospital radio station near you, click here.

Hospital Guide

Most of us try very hard to stay out of hospital, so when the time comes that we need to visit one, to comfort a friend or relative, we can find it difficult to navigate our way around. That is where volunteer guides come in. They know where everything is and are happy to take a few minutes to show you the way. To take a look at what is involved, click here.

Exploring Further

Volunteer Now is the umbrella body promoting volunteering in Northern Ireland. Their web address is www.volunteernow.co.uk

Do-It is a volunteering database for the UK, maintained by the charity YouthNet. Their web address is www.do-it.org.uk