Tuesday 14 August 2018

At your service: the older people leading volunteer drive

As new figures show fewer midlifers are signing up to charity work, Arlene Harris speaks to kind souls who have found helping out an invaluable experience

Good example: Eric Conroy picks rubbish out of the Grand Canal. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Good example: Eric Conroy picks rubbish out of the Grand Canal. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Arlene Harris

Having spent her whole life caring for people, when 64-year-old Karen Forsyth retired from her role as a nurse, she was at a loss. Her two grown-up children had flown the nest and with just herself and her husband at home, there was very little that needed to be done around the house. So she decided to put her intentions and health to good use by volunteering her time to help others.

Karen, who is originally from the US but moved to Ireland with her husband several years ago, started offering her time with Serve the City, an organisation which provides practical help for vulnerable people in their own home.

"Since last year, I have volunteered in a leadership development and co-ordination role with Serve the City and I give approximately six to eight hours to this every week," she says.

"I also wanted to help in a hands-on way so I have been doing painting jobs for people in their homes. I think it's important to use your skills in a volunteer capacity, not only for money, but to make something better than it was. And I believe older people have influence and life experience which they need to put to use."

As well as enriching her own life, Karen is providing much needed support for others and this week, the Dublin City Volunteer Centre (DCVC) launched its Experience Counts campaign in a bid to recruit more people over 50 to help out across the city in a variety of charities and organisations.

According to DCVC Manager Edwina Dewart, there is a real need for older volunteers. "Older people have life experience, commitment and maturity, which are invaluable attributes for making great volunteers," she says.

Hands-on: Karen Forsyth volunteers with Serve the City and also helps people paint their homes
Hands-on: Karen Forsyth volunteers with Serve the City and also helps people paint their homes

"Volunteering is also proven to have physical and mental health benefits for older people, such as social engagement, giving a sense of purpose and also fulfilling the need to give something back."

Eric Conroy does his bit for the local community in Kimmage, Co Dublin. The 63-year-old is a life-long member of the Green Party and is passionate about climate change. The semi-retired accountant volunteers for the Grand Canal Bio-diversity and Clean-Up Group who meet once a month at Dolphin's Barn to clear around the canal.

Eric is part of Canals Action Day which takes place on April 21 and aims to encourage people to clean their local canal.

The keen activist, who is organising all the bags, gloves, cleaning equipment and pickers for the event, also helps with other clean-up groups around the city on weekends.

"Whether it's my own group or others, I just can't resist helping out," he says. "I get a great kick out of helping out - it's like a drug to me. So I just hop on my bike with my long picker and off I go.

"The canal is a great part of our heritage, it's 200 years old and is a great amenity so I really enjoy working on it.

"There's a great sense of community and camaraderie and while we work, we discuss politics and have good conversations but also enjoy the biodiversity of the canal - the trees, bushes and the birds - and it keeps me fit.

"Today's world is all about money - so we should all do something without getting paid. My volunteering makes me feel good and sets a good example."

Ireland ranks eighth on the World Giving Index and we are first place in Europe for our willingness to help a stranger, donate money or volunteer.

Amy Woods from Volunteer Ireland says the older generation have a crucial role to play in those statistics.

"Older volunteers are vital to communities across Ireland," she says. "According to the most recent available figures, 40pc of volunteering here is done by those over 55 so it's not overstating it when we say that older volunteers are the lifeblood of many communities.

"People are living longer than ever, meaning they have a long life ahead after retirement which may not have been the case years ago. Older volunteers have the time and drive to give back and the figures show the very real impact they make in our communities."

According to Woods, one of the best things about volunteering is that there is so much variety.

"People of different ages, backgrounds and cultures come together to achieve a common goal," she says. "They all bring something different and one of the key attributes that older volunteers bring is their life experience.

"They have a level of wisdom and knowledge which comes from having lived and worked in a community for many years. Their experience is not only valuable to the organisations they volunteer with, but also for fellow volunteers.

"So volunteering is for everyone and local Volunteer Centres are there to help. There is now a volunteering service in every county which can help you decide what you would like to do and what roles are best for you."

Proving that you can lend a hand at any age, 81-year-old Michael Richards likes nothing better than volunteering his services in Ennis, Co Clare.

Having only moved back to the town in 2015 after spending 35 years in the US, Michael has a lot of experience helping out at festivals, so when the Fleadh Cheoil took over the town in both 2016 and 2017, he was more than happy to be of assistance. "I started volunteering in Ennis during the Fleadh," he says. "I helped people to find accommodation and also offered advice on where to go and what to do in the locality. Since then I have also helped the town Chamber by doing surveys and being a source of information for visitors.

"I believe you are never too old to volunteer and keeping active helps to keep you young both mentally and physically."

For more information, visit volunteerdublincity.ie and volunteer.ie.

Irish Independent

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