Last week I attended the Queen’s Volunteering Award Event with Age UK volunteer, John McArthur, to celebrate the huge contribution that our 70,000 volunteers add to our work across the Age UK network. We know that like many voluntary and charity organisations, a significant proportion of the support we provide would simply not be available without these individuals. In the current climate, their support is even more vital.
We’re experiencing unprecedented cuts. NCVO estimates the voluntary sector is set to lose £3bn over the next five years with cuts to volunteering the most commonly reported theme by organisation. The belief that volunteering is free and will ‘fill the gap’ makes the situation even harder.
For those of us in the ageing sector, the challenge comes at a time when we need action more than ever before, with the number of people aged 65 and over expected to rise by 65% in the next 25 years, and the number of over 85s predicted to double. Ensuring we are able to enjoy the opportunities this presents will mean tackling significant challenges: providing decent and sustainable income in retirement, addressing inequalities in ageing, delivering dignity for older people, reforming social care and tackling isolation and loneliness. This means we need to ask ourselves not just how to strengthen volunteering in this difficult environment, but also how it can be used to help us meet the challenges of an ageing population.
There are certainly opportunities. At a political level, we have a Government actively promoting the role of civil society with initiatives such as Big Society Capital, Nesta’s Innovation in Giving Fund, the Centre for Social Action, the London 2012 legacy and National Citizen Service. At the same time, there are a number of exciting programmes delivering innovation in our sector.
Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Friends funded by the Government is one such initiative. A dementia friend learns about what it’s like to have dementia and then turns understanding in to action, all the while helping to build dementia friendly communities. Care4Care on the Isle of Wight is another. Members spend a few hours a week supporting an older person in their local community, in return building up their own ‘care pension’. Age UK’s Cornwall Pathfinder pilot is another great example, with volunteers at the heart of delivering integrated care to older people.
And the benefits of projects such as these are not just felt by the recipients of services. We know volunteering can have a profound and positive impact on volunteers themselves.
Stanley Parker is one of the 4.9 million people aged 65+ in England taking part in volunteering or civic engagement. Stanley is 95 and has been a volunteer at Age UK’s Market Drayton shop since 2000. Speaking about his volunteering, Stanley says, “Sadly my wife passed away and it made me consider what I could do to keep occupied. I wanted to put something back into the community, to help those less fortunate than myself”.
John McArthur who accompanied me to Buckingham Palace last week has been volunteering at Age UK since January 2010, contributing to our work in a number of roles. John says, “Having been out of work for over a year, my role not only gave me an insight into another, more interesting career path, but it also enabled me to get back into a proper working environment, to regain my own self-esteem and confidence and to feel valued.”
Going forward our sector needs to look to the examples that already exist of delivering innovation and business models working with volunteers. It is only by sharing the wealth of knowledge and experience we have that we can maximise upon the opportunities that exist despite this challenging build on the great work that is already happening across the country.