Volunteerism: the secret agenda

October 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

A: When I first thought I had to sit here for six weeks, ehh! I was ready to, you know, conk out.
E: You were ready to…?
A: Oh, conk out. Do you know what that means?
E: No, that’s the new word of the day.
A: Oh, I don’t want to say it. I didn’t want to be around much longer. I don’t want to say the word. I would never have done that. But it made me think: “Why am I living!?”

Adele, an outgoing76-year old divorcee, broke her foot on a Friday night as she was walking on a street downtown to volunteer at an event. She gathered enough “true grit” to drive home pressing the clutch with her freshly broken foot since she did not want to burden anyone around her. Forced rest disrupts her merry-go-round of volunteer activities. Every day of the week, except for Monday, her “free day”, Adele fervently volunteers at church, concerts, museums, and botanical gardens. Her volunteerism is so ingrained into her identity to make her wonder about her life purpose without her chain of unpaid jobs.

At a first look, Adele confirms the famous claim of Putnam’s Bowling Alone that older Americans volunteer more often than younger generations and that they do so to stay engaged. Volunteerism appears as a gateway to a meaningful role, new acquaintances, the acquisition of new skills, a distraction, and the contribution to the advancement of society.  Yet, this optimistic image of volunteerism is partial.

First, if we buy into the idea that volunteerism allows the access to the resources just listed, we have also to take into account the barriers to the enjoyment deriving from this access. Adele’s broken foot points to the physical effort required contributing to the common good.  Second, on a deeper level, Adele’s urge might mask something else.  She says: “I like to know what I’m going to do every day. So I started volunteering.” Adele’s tight schedule provides her a structure that fills days that might be too empty. How does it feel to have an entire week without commitments? “Terrible!” she wails.

Finally, a closer look into the world of volunteerism in older age shows an unexpected side of the coin. Rather than volunteering for popular reasons, a few San Franciscans strategically use volunteerism as a compass to navigate the system.  For instance Lori, an 80-year old divorcee, volunteered in an agency that assessed the quality of nursing homes. Once she found the nursing home of her choice, she left the agency to start volunteering in the nursing home to increase her chance of admission.  Grace, a 72-year old single and childless woman with cancer, follows a similar strategy. To discover the best agency offering friendly visitors, she volunteers in a few of them.  The last time I talk to her she tells me of yet a new volunteering assignment she took on board.  At the end, she exclaims: “Sometimes I am older than my client!”

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