A few weeks ago, my nana turned 84. She is incredible: bright, chipper, happy, and sharp as a tack. She may be a little more hunched over than she used to be. Her eyes aren’t as good and her hearing is starting to go, but in every way that matters my nana is still the very same person who held me when I was a baby. I really think one of the reasons she has managed to age so gracefully is her lifelong dedication to volunteering. She is Catholic and is very devout. Her whole life she has been volunteering at her church, giving back to the community in every way that she can. She has run food drives, collected clothing for shelters, raised money for shelter animals, and helped care for the community’s children. She has always been an integral part of life in her corner of New Jersey.
As my nana began to embrace the twilight of her life she decided she wanted to bring her efforts somewhere new. She had always dreamed of traveling but hadn’t ever made it a priority. She put her money into her family, supporting her kids and then her grand kids, helping us go to college so we could achieve our dreams. At 80 my nana was starting to realize that she had her own dreams and they needed pursuing too. My dad, her son, lives in New Zealand. She decided that was where she was going first. But unlike most tourists, content to relax on the black sand beaches or sail the crystal waters, my nana wanted to work. She’s not happy unless she’s busy helping others.
My nana is only peripherally comfortable with using the Internet so she didn’t do what most prospective volunteers do. She didn’t Google anything. Instead she turned to a real, live social network: her church. Through friends of friends she found a church in Auckland, New Zealand that was working on a project to collect and distribute Christmas gifts to disadvantaged children. The work was perfect for her: no physical labor and lots of contact with new people. She had an incredible time, made several new friends, and came home feeling rejuvenated and excited for her next adventure. The following year, she volunteered with a church in France. (If you’re Catholic and would like to volunteer with a church overseas but don’t have the contacts, try the Catholic Volunteer Network.)
As my nana’s experience demonstrates, there are many ways for older volunteers to get involved. You don’t have to be physically strong to make a difference and you don’t have to go through traditional channels to find volunteering opportunities all over the world. All you need is the will to volunteer, the energy to do some networking, and the knowledge that your work will make a difference in people’s lives.