We must do more to support our older volunteers | OPINION

This week is National Volunteer Week. For the next five days, we celebrate the 5.8 million Australians who generously volunteer their time each year to keep our society going.

The people who sit on our community committees, the volunteer firefighters who forgo their weekends and evenings to keep our rural towns safe, and our local Meals on Wheels drivers who keep our parents, grandparents and neighbours fed.

If you actually take a look at who these volunteers are, it’s highly likely that they’re older Australians.

Volunteering rates are high among those aged over 65 years, and if you live in a small rural town, it’s almost unusual to find an older person who isn’t contributing to their community.

This is a good thing – many older people are actively looking to volunteer in activities that enable them to meet new people, to help make a difference and to keep their minds active.

Research has consistently shown that being involved in volunteer activity as we grow older can benefit both our physical and mental health.

It also helps create more cohesive communities.

And yet, many older Australians are turning their backs on volunteering, or are feeling overburdened by their current volunteer roles.

Many don’t feel that the current options for volunteer activity fit their needs, and are not able to commit to regular, structured volunteer activity due to caring or employment duties.

Others are completely overburdened by the regulatory requirements related to volunteer activity, such as completing police and Working with Children checks.

Some are finding that while they love volunteering, the associated stresses involved – things such as the financial costs associated with travel, the conflict they experience within organisations and with other volunteers, and a constant demand for their services – are making them question their commitment.

At the same time, volunteer managers are reporting increasing difficulties supporting volunteers effectively with the limited time and resources at their disposal.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that our recent research has shown that some older people are making a rational choice not to volunteer, simply because they don’t feel it benefits their wellbeing.

So, what can we do about this? Where possible, organisations that engage volunteers can focus on improving the administrative and technical support that they provide – offering flexible roles that cater for varying levels of commitment, understanding competing priorities and demands on time, and helping to resolve conflict as it arises.

Governments can be more mindful of the impost of regulatory requirements around volunteering, particularly within a population that may not necessarily be computer savvy.

So, while it is very important to celebrate our older volunteers during this week’s National Volunteer Week, it is even more important that we support them to keep doing their great work.

The wellbeing of our older populations – and indeed our wider communities – depends on it.

Dr Rachel Winterton is a research fellow and graduate research co-ordinator at the John Richards Centre for Rural Ageing Research, La Trobe University Rural Health School.