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Study: Let Retirees Decide


Today, older adults are encouraged to make volunteering a normal part of post-retirement life, but volunteering may not be for everyone.

Olena Nesteruk and Christine Price from Montclair State University (Montclair, New Jersey) interviewed 40 women retirees living in the Midwest of the United States. They came from different backgrounds and ranged from 53 to 74 years of age. All the women were retired seven years or less.

The research appeared online in the Journal of Women & Aging (Vol. 23, No. 2, 2011).

Volunteering in later life

The study found retirees’ attitudes toward volunteering varied considerably.

1. Non-volunteers

Eleven of 40 participants expressed no interest in volunteering.

They said, they:

  • felt "tapped out" after a lifetime of doing for others;
  • were dissatisfied with earlier volunteer experiences; and
  • wanted to keep their schedules flexible.

As "Hobart", a remarried women with four grandchildren, explained:

I thought about maybe volunteering at the hospital, but I don’t want to overload myself. I don’t want to get that feeling that I felt the last two years before retirement. After being on a nine-to-five job, I really want to stay loose and just do spur of the moment trips. Just enjoy it.

These women saw retirement as "their turn" to put their own needs first. In short, they wanted to pursue personal interests and enjoy some "me" time.

2. Caregiving volunteers

Another group of retirees chose to focus their energy on family-related obligations. Nonetheless, some of the women felt guilty because they could not volunteer in a formal capacity. Indeed, some believed that caring for family should be considered volunteer work.

Take "Barbara" for example:

I have a daughter with four children, and I help her the most. This week I’m out there three days watching the children so my daughter can volunteer. In a way, I’m helping her volunteer. A friend of mine said, "You know, they should stress more that helping with family is volunteer work, as well." So that relieved some of my [guilt].

Similarly, "Cathy" noted:

I’ve had four hard years; my husband was very disabled by an acute stroke, my daughter lives in town, and I spend a lot of time babysitting and having them over. There is a lot of giving on a fairly regular basis. While it’s indirect, I am still giving to others.

3. Traditional volunteers

Finally, the study found over half of retirees engaged in either formal or informal volunteer work.

Formal volunteers donated time on a regular basis in:

  • hospitals;
  • food banks; and
  • at the local literacy council.

Informal volunteers engaged in the following:

  • providing rides to medical appointments;
  • preparing meals for neighbours on occasion; and
  • helping with community events "here and there."

These participants talked about the benefits of community work. They reported that volunteering:

  • provided a sense of purpose;
  • offered feelings of fulfillment;
  • helped them structure time;
  • offered them a way to give back; and
  • helped them find meaning in their lives.

For example, "Kay" volunteered at the statehouse in her home city.

So I work down there one day a week and I really like that. I really enjoy being a tour guide there. It gets me out. . . . I’ve made a lot of friends down there and it’s just fun. I really enjoy that. I get to dress up (laughter) and go there. I like that.

Let retirees decide

With retirements beginning to stretch routinely into two – or even three – decades, many retirees join the voluntary sector to gain a sense of renewal in their post-work lives and to ensure they remain engaged.

According to the study, the trouble begins when certain kinds of contributions become obligatory rather than optional for older adults.

The researchers say, "We need to respect the multiple ways in which women experience later life."

Also, society needs to recognize the indispensable family caregiving work provided by retired women.