We’ve all heard about how many older people have been required to stay at home during the Covid-19 crisis and have needed help from neighbours with shopping, fetching prescriptions and socially distanced company. But we’ve heard a lot less about how much people in later life have been the ones contributing to their communities in this period.
The Centre for Ageing Better’s recent report on the impact of lockdown on those aged 50-70 has shone a light on just how many people in this age group have been helping out in their local areas. 30% have been volunteering informally, such as running errands for friends and neighbours. And the majority (87%) have said that they want to carry on doing so in future.
This is a really positive legacy from this uniquely challenging time because, through Ageing Better’s work to understand community contributions in later life, we know that making a contribution to our communities is good for us as we age. It has been shown to improve our social connections, enhance our sense of purpose and self-esteem – and as a result, to increase our life satisfaction, happiness and wellbeing.
But we also know that the least healthy and least wealthy in society are most likely to miss out on the wellbeing benefits of taking part. And over the past year, in partnership with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, we have run a grant programme to pilot, develop and share new approaches to age-friendly and inclusive volunteering.
The five volunteering projects we supported worked to help people get involved in volunteering and stay involved as their circumstances change. They also tested out our six principles of age-friendly and inclusive volunteering to ensure opportunities to contribute and volunteer are open to people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. Those opportunities range from formal volunteering, like being a weekly volunteer for a telephone contact initiative during lockdown or being an ambassador for a charity, to informal support – like taking out a neighbour’s bins or making the tea at a social club.
The volunteering projects have told us that the age-friendly and inclusive approaches they had developed have helped them to ensure that people have remained in touch and involved during Covid-19. For some, this has been in new ways, including embracing digital technology: for example, Hastings Voluntary Action successfully experimented with a Zoom volunteering fair – helping organisations who are re-opening their services to make contact with and recruit potential volunteers remotely.
Others have taken a blended approach using digital technology where appropriate but also ensuring those who might not be online don’t miss out. Spitalfields City Farm and St Mary’s Secret Garden - both part of the Growing Connections project in London run by Sustain – have been able to engage their more vulnerable volunteers remotely through innovative solutions, such as sending videos of the gardens or delivering seedlings for people to grow at home.
‘Flexibility and responsiveness’
Other partners have told us that the principles resonate strongly with the flexibility and responsiveness they needed to adapt quickly to a surge in both need and offers of help. Their new approaches ensured people could take part in ways that work for them and helped them feel safe and confident.
At the height of lockdown, over 750,000 people signed up to help out in their communities through the NHS volunteer responder programme. Many others got involved in local mutual aid networks, and plenty helped out in less organised ways – checking up on neighbours, helping with shopping trips or picking up prescriptions. How do we harness this surge in the number of people wanting to volunteer? And how do we help those who had to stop their volunteering activities due to shielding or social distancing to return safely?
At Ageing Better we want to use the learning from our grant programme to explore these questions. We know that the coming months will see huge disruption in the voluntary and community sector, so it is vital that organisations are able to continue to work flexibly and responsively. Ensuring that these organisations can support volunteers of all ages and abilities to get involved – and stay involved – will be crucial in this time.
Rachel Monaghan is programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better