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Interview: New Life Stage For Retirees Who Volunteer


A Canadian study has found that retirees experience a new stage of life after volunteering.

"Later life growth gets very little attention," said gerontologist Suzanne Cook. That will change as Canada’s nearly 10 million baby boomers move into retirement, embracing new pathways in the push for personal renewal.

Cook examined whether retirees’ formal volunteer experiences represented an extension of their career in the paid workforce.

The study appeared online in The Gerontologist on Sept. 19, 2013.

Dr. Suzanne Cook is sessional assistant professor in the department of sociology at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Dr. Suzanne Cook

AHB reached her in Toronto.

Ruth Dempsey: Retirement ain’t what it use to be . . .

Suzanne Cook: That’s right. Retirement is undergoing a shift. The pathways into retirement have changed. And the experience of retirement itself has changed.

A great deal of personal growth and development occurs during this time of life. But later life growth gets very little attention. That’s because it conflicts with negative attitudes toward older adults and aging. These stereotypes are pervasive in society.

The proportion of seniors is on the rise in communities across the country. They are healthier and better educated than previous cohorts of older adults.

These people are not interested in withdrawing from society, which is what retirement originally meant.

Today, an individual can spend two to three decades in retirement. This changes everything.

RD: Some found it difficult to adjust to retirement. Can you give me an example?

SC: The adjustment can be challenging because paid work structures our day. There is a reason to get up in the morning. Some of the participants mentioned changes to their identity as difficult to deal with. When paid work is gone, there is a void. The uncertainty that this creates can make people feel anxious.

Some individuals have not thought about what comes next. Others have avoided thinking about it. For some, retirement may have come sooner than they anticipated. Others know they want to remain vitally engaged.

All of these individuals need to decide what comes next.

RD: Retirees in your study discovered a new world through formal volunteering. What kinds of activities did they do?

SC: My study focused on retirees who volunteered in their community.

In fact, these retirees were involved in many different kinds of volunteer tasks. They wanted to use their skills and knowledge and they wanted to give back to the community.

They volunteered across the nonprofit sector, contributing volunteer hours to:

  • schools
  • health institutions
  • recreation centres
  • long-term care homes
  • distress centres
  • church and faith groups, and
  • other organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity.

They engaged in:

  • administrative work
  • program development
  • program management
  • research
  • analyzing data
  • teaching
  • counselling
  • training
  • mentoring, and
  • giving presentations.

RD: Had they volunteered in the past?

SC: They showed various levels of commitment to volunteerism across their lives. About 35 per cent said they had begun volunteering within the last nine years. And 24 per cent had volunteered for more than 30 years.

RD: The research reveals retirees experienced a new stage of life qualitatively different from retirement. How so?

SC: As I mentioned, retirement has traditionally meant a process of disengagement or withdrawal. Instead, my research revealed retirees have entered a new stage of life.

These retirees are active and participating fully in life. They are contributing to the community and filling a valuable role. This is a new vision of retirement.

These older adults are vital members of the community: they have not withdrawn at all from the social sphere.

In Canada, 36 per cent of people aged 65 and older engage in formal volunteer activities. In fact, older adults contribute the most number of volunteer hours to nonprofit organizations.

RD: You call this new stage Redirection. Can you elaborate?

SC: In my study, Redirection emerged from examing retirees unpaid volunteer roles during the transition into retirement.

The new stage better reflects the experiences of retirees in the context of social and demographic change.

RD: The Redirection process involves several tasks. What are they?

SC: The initial task is redefinition. As one nears retirement, one experiences a growing awareness that identity and social roles change post-retirement. Individuals feel the push to reinvent themselves. This is the beginning of the process of Redirection.

Discovery is the second task. It involves learning about the possibilities and opportunities that are available and finding the best fit.

The third task involves personal renewal. Retirees find fulfillment and passion by having a new purpose. When a retiree finds the right activity and is able to make a suitable match, say with a nonprofit organization, they feel rejuvenated.

The final task involves integration. Individuals bring together their old and new sense of self to create a new career self-concept. They discover new pathways to share their skills and knowledge.

One man, who volunteered for Habitat for Humanity said the work gave him a new outlook and a new purpose in life. "I enjoyed working there and [I] was looked up to for my abilities and knowledge," he said.

RD: Can this new stage be reached by other routes say, paid work, caregiving or leisure pursuits?

SC: This is a question for future research. We need to establish whether Redirection is restricted to formal volunteering or if this stage is found more broadly in later life pursuits.

RD: You talk about the need for older citizens to find outlets for their abilities and dreams. What do you hope?

SC: Attitudes toward aging need to change. And communities need to wake up to the wealth of skills, experience and wisdom that retirees can provide.

We need to create new programs, structures and supportive pathways to fulfillment in later life. I want to address these critical issues.

Redirection demonstrates how later life is rejuvenating and invigorating. The retirees in this study reflected on their dreams. They took on the retiree and volunteer roles, and they integrated these roles to create a new sense of self. This led to new meaning and fulfillment in their lives.

Editor’s note: Suzanne Cook blogs at Carpe Vitam.