Aging gracefully through community service

ShareNet & You

At ShareNet we have a fantastic volunteer family who staff our food bank and thrift store, and most of them are seniors. Aging has been on my mind. Not only am I constantly reminded of my own aging these days, I received a picture of my Mom on Mother’s Day from my aunt in Texas. Not having seen her in about 18 months, I was shocked to see how old she looked.

9 out of 10 of ShareNet’s volunteer family are seniors. Many of them are near 70. A few are closer to 80. Many of them are doing manual labor in service to the community. It’s easy to see they find satisfaction in what they’re doing, sometimes even joy.

One of the many difficult features of aging is losing communities or networks which have been important to you: a work community, a family unit now dispersed, or a physical place in a post-retirement relocation. Volunteering is one of the very effective ways of rebuilding community for yourself.

The simple step of volunteering often ends up connecting you to many other things: a new friend, a new interest, a new club. When you’re with people, you tend to share information, and one new piece of information leads to another, often leading to increased productivity.

Volunteering is a proven cognitive stimulant. Some people do it to get out of the house. Some get the most physical exercise they get all week through their volunteer shift, and even if they’re otherwise active it’s a different kind of workout, mentally and physically. Over and over we’ve seen people blossom through the volunteer experience, who started one way and were transformed through service.

It’s not for everyone. We’ve had folks who saw it as social hour, who felt workplace guidelines somehow didn’t apply, or who hadn’t been supervised in many years and didn’t want to start now, but these are a minority. The truth is most people are fantastic at helping.

What makes a volunteer, and what makes a great volunteer? It’s not in everyone’s DNA, that’s for sure. Neither of my parents volunteered after they got older, even though my sister and I, realizing they were often at loose ends, kept encouraging it. Predictably, they had a quicker decline, not least of which I’m convinced was through TV and boredom.

Some people are active enough without volunteering; others recognize the value, but feel like they can’t fit it in. Hint: most of our volunteers do one 3-hour shift per week, so it’s a big reward without a serious toll.

Our region and even our smaller community seem to produce a better-than-average number of volunteers. We may be seeing one of the last waves of “official” retirees, folks who actually receive a pension or who did well enough to be secure in old age, or (especially in Kitsap) retired from the military. Does anyone younger count on retirement anymore? If this is one of the last waves, we’re grateful to be reaping the benefits of their generosity.

Reportedly, millennials and younger view “giving back” as an obligation, and even want to prioritize their spending with companies that give back. That may be true, but we don’t see a lot of them. Our volunteer force is overwhelmingly senior, and proud of it, though we welcome more youthful volunteers as well.

Do you have to have a special feeling for food bank work? Probably not, but it helps. Many of our volunteers have had an experience which sensitized them to need in others. These are usually the ones who become great volunteers, who have an emotional investment in the experience, work with empathy, and who last, many folks with us for over a decade. Everyone is here for their own reason, and as long as they’re kind to our clients and each other and productive that’s good with us, and good for the community.

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