An old Navy man, Ken had a bunch of tattoos on his somewhat-wrinkled but still-strong arms. There were call-signs and images of the ships on which he used to ply the world’s waters, a few Morse code images, the obligatory mermaid girl, and, somewhat surprisingly, a Latin phrase.
It certainly wasn’t semper fi (never confuse a Navy man for a Marine), but one I hadn’t ever seen before: extollere fratrem. As he explained to me, it translated roughly as “lift your brother.”
This wasn’t literal, but an ethos, both from his time in service and afterward. He had spent a lifetime helping other people, both in his profession as a public works engineer and in his community. He worked as a drug counselor and mentored ex-cons. He had come up from the streets and wanted to give back.
But now, he felt he had to do more than volunteer; he wanted to help other people volunteer. As an older adult, he felt frustrated by what he felt were the lack of opportunities and the idea that older adults should just sit around. So one morning over coffee, he asked how to get groups of older adults to volunteer.
We came up with a simple solution: just tell them they can.
See, it is easy to think that once you retire, you should fade away. But that’s nonsense. Not only do older adults have wisdom to spare, they also have experience to give and time to spend. You don’t have to be isolated when you get older: you can continue to open up your heart.
This doesn’t have to be solo. Many older adult groups are looking for places in the Bay Area to volunteer, where they can spend time helping others and spend time with each other. Volunteering your group, or finding other older adults to work with, is a wonderful way to stay active, to help each other out, and to meet new friends.
The Benefits of Volunteering for Older Adults
Whether in a group or by yourself, volunteering is a great way for older adults to spend time. Helping other people gives you a sense of purpose and meaning, helps you establish a routine, and reminds you that you are always a valuable and valued member of society.
That’s sadly easy to forget. Too often, society treats older adults as an afterthought, people who have had their time and now should cede it, and as people who require more help than they can give.
While the last one may sometimes be true, that isn’t true for everyone, and people who may need some help in some capacities can often still give in others. So if you are interested in volunteering, there are a few ways to go about it. These include:
- Volunteering for a cause you admire. This can be anything from cleaning up natural wonders to working on a political campaign. Working for an issue you believe in not only increases your sense of purpose but gives you more energy to continue even when it is challenging.
- Using your professional skills. Mentoring younger workers in your profession, teaching adults, working at a clinic, and advising local non-profits are just some ways that you can use your professional skills after you retire. We’ve known accountants who gave free advice and counseling to their favorite charities, helping more than any one donation could. We’ve also known retired lawyers who gave legal advice to non-profits, aiding them in their mission. Whatever your professional skill set, there is bound to be others who can benefit.
- Working with your interests. History buff? San Francisco and the Bay Area have no shortage of sites that could use docents. Architecture fan? Find places that want guides. Or volunteer to be a tour guide giving tips and quips to tourists. It’s a great way to show pride in your city.
- Person-to-person counseling. There are people of all age who just need to talk to someone who can understand them and help them with what they are going through. If you have the gift of empathy, and some training, this could be a great way to change someone’s life.
- Peer-to-peer counseling. While people of all age need counseling, for older adults, peer-to-peer counseling is often the most relevant. Talking to someone your age who understands your unique challenges can be very freeing, and older adults who volunteer to counsel other seniors can bring shared experience and shared cultural knowledge to the table.
Volunteer Opportunities in the Bay Area
There is a wealth of opportunities to volunteer in the Bay Area, depending on your interests, expertise, and experience. We also encourage you to look at bulletin boards (online or in real life) at your community groups, libraries, religious institutions, or anywhere people gather.
Groups like the California Community Education Program are looking for mentors for homeless youth from K-12. You and your friends could make a real difference in children from whom society turns its head, and through no fault of their own, are starting life from behind the 8-ball.
The East Bay College Fund matches retired professionals with underprivileged students looking to start their career. By mentoring these students and offering career advice, you will be giving direct help to people trying to forge their own path in life.
If you are looking specifically to coach and mentor younger girls, the Girls for a Change program is looking for you and your friends to volunteer. Seeing older women who didn’t just survive, but thrived in a challenging climate could be extremely inspiring.
Sticking with the youth, but moving outdoors, we greatly admire the Edible Garden program at the Martin Luther King Jr Middle School. In this program, you and your green-thumb group help children “grow a wide variety of seasonal produce and volunteers seed, grow, harvest, and rotate crops with new groups of students each year.” You’ll be teaching science, food, sustainability, and healthy eating habits.
If you are a retired physician, the Medical Alumni Volunteer Expert Network is looking for volunteers for underserved communities, providing telehealth services, consultations, talks, and mentoring for doctors in free care clinics. They are looking for doctors in areas as diverse as cardiology, dermatology, oncology, family practice, neurology, gynecology, and more, so a group of your retired doctor and nurse friends would be invaluable.
Don’t forget that all sorts of creatures need your help. The SFPCA is always looking for volunteers to spend time and help animals acclimate from a life of abuse and neglect to one of love. They provide training, and it is a great way to spend time with creatures who will meow or bark in happiness when they see you.
You might not know what you want, of course, which is why we’re happy to offer a few more resources for regional-or-personality-specific programs.
And of course, we are always looking for volunteers for our Friendship Line, where you can help a lonely voice at the other end of a trembling line remember that they, too, are human and that they, too, are loved.
As Ken (and his tattoo) reminded me, that’s what volunteering is all about. He wanted to help raise up his fellow man, to pick up his brothers and sisters, because they are part of the human community. He didn’t feel that poverty, circumstance, even bad choices should expel anyone from that community. And certainly, neither does aging.
When you and your group lift up others, you are also lifting yourselves. You are reminded that we are all here together, for as long as we are here.
At Institute on Aging, our programs and services help older adults, their families, and caregivers explore aging together, through good times and bad, as an adventure and a journey. Connect with us today to learn more.