Retired and looking for new, fulfilling ways to occupy yourself? Volunteering adventures aren’t just for the gap yah gang, as Felicity Gardiner has been finding out

You might feel like embarking on a year abroad and getting stuck into a positive humanitarian project is the preserve of the spring chicken, but there you’d be wrong. It’s never too late to make a difference in the world, and many organisations offer opportunities specifically tailored to the over-50s, so if you’ve stopping working entirely, or found yourself with a whole lot of extra time on your hands, we daresay you’re probably perfect volunteering material.

While, yes, many operations are aimed specifically at those aged from 18 to 35, there are also lots with vacancies for mature folk – whether they’ve had plenty of practice putting their philanthropic feelings to good use, or are planning their first volunteer venture.

Most overseas trips provide a good blend of cultural immersion and exploration so you can combine a responsible holiday with crossing off some bucket list items, learning new skills and helping others; and whether your passion lies in marine and wildlife conservation, child care, animal care, health care or teaching, there’s sure to be a project somewhere that suits you down to the ground.

“As with all our prospective volunteers, we consult with each individual to understand their experience and skills and, importantly, their expectations and preferences,” says Steve Summer, director at Outreach International (outreachinternational.co.uk; 01903 746 900). “This consultation is important, as we often find that they only discover what they are really looking for once they talk about it with an experienced individual. Some are actually looking for travel, with a cause, while others are looking to do something different from their profession, or to augment it, and then others are looking to relocate!

“Many retirees will have great professional experience we can use, whether in healthcare or commerce, and often have more time to share. Being a little older, however, may mean we take account of different lifestyle requirements – not living in a shared, basic bedroom for example.”

Semi-retired occupational therapist Laura was looking both to challenge herself and give back. Volunteering as a therapist in rural Cambodia, and operating largely as an independent volunteer, was always going to be a challenge but also proved to be an immensely rewarding experience that the team were proud to support.

…Organisations value older people for their calm, problem-solving skills, empathy and experience…

“I absolutely loved my experience in Prey Veng, volunteering as an occupational therapist,” she recalls. “I was able to live as part of the local community, living and working with local people and I was able to develop an understanding of this beautiful country. It was challenging at times but such a rewarding experience and I would love to return to Cambodia again in the future. I felt like I was able deliver a much needed service to the community during my time in Prey Veng.”

Even if you’ve already got plenty of ideas for how to fill your new-found free time – writing a novel, spending more time with the family or sailing off on a cruise perhaps – the long-term sense of structure and purpose that volunteering can give can be a very welcome addition to day-to-day life, post-retirement. Your lifetime’s worth of knowledge, and your various different skills and experience accrued are such valuable things to share with those who could really benefit from them, and, of course, you could learn some new skills into the bargain.

“From aid projects in Africa to teaching English in India, there are thousands of opportunities when you retire,” says Simon Hemelryk at Saga. “Don’t be put off getting involved because you’re not the classic gap-year student volunteer. According to Voluntary Service Overseas, for instance, around two fifths of its volunteers are in their fifties or sixties, with two percent in their seventies. Organisations value older people for their calm, problem-solving skills, empathy and experience.

…Choose a project that suits your interests but also your experience and past career – from nursing in a field hospital to optometry to setting up IT systems…

“If you’re unsure whether you want to commit to a project, consider a short-term position or programme. These can last from one week to three months, and could include anything from helping to build a school to providing assistance after a natural disaster. Consider choosing a project that fits your interests, but also your experience and past career. That could take in everything from nursing in a field hospital, to optometry to setting up IT systems. Investigate the organisation you are thinking of working for. Do you agree with all its principles? How is it funded? Is it linked to any governments or other bodies you might not approve of?

“Also find out about the conditions you’ll be living and working in. Will there be running water, easily accessible health care, food you like? You need to know you can cope and won’t feel the need to come home early. And be sure to get a health check with your GP. The work and daily routine could be pretty strenuous – especially in very hot temperatures – so you need to make sure you’re in good condition. Check whether you need any vaccinations.

“Finally, be prepared to pay costs such as airfares and limited living expenses. Few projects will cover everything. Cancel any monthly services you won’t need while you’re away, to keep your costs as low as possible, and remember to budget for other outgoings you can’t avoid, such as council tax payments and utility bills.”

If you don’t fancy going abroad, of course there are plenty of ways to make a difference here in Bristol, too. Thriving local charity RSVP West (rsvp-west.org.uk; 0117 922 4392) encourages and provides support for people over 50 to volunteer for the benefit of their local communities. “It is well known that volunteering not only helps others but provides great satisfaction, and staying active improves your quality of life,” says Bob Maggs, regional coordinator for the organisation, which is part of the national charity Volunteering Matters. “RSVP’s volunteers can join any one of a number of projects which include reading to schoolchildren, transport and wellbeing support for frail surgery patients, lay assessing for care homes and home care services, as well as musical activity sessions or working on the Matthew Project at Bristol Harbourside, where we maintain and crew the ship, and greet and guide visitors round it.

“With so many people living alone and confined to their homes, our surgery volunteers tell us how very rewarding it is to see the patients they befriend improve in confidence and stamina. They work as little or as often as they wish; we provide good insurance cover and reimburse all out-of-pocket expenses.”

So, if one of your new year’s resolutions happened to be along the lines of giving back, you know what to do…