Where your talents and the needs of the world cross,
there lies your vocation.

~ Aristotle


Mme. Pauline Vanier  (1898-1991) was the wife of Georges Vanier, Governor General of Canada in the 1960s.   As a widow in her mid-70s, Mme. Vanier made a surprising decision – to move to France to join the first L’Arche community founded by her distinguished son, Jean Vanier.  She spent her last two decades surrounded by 200 men and women with mental impairments and their volunteer personal assistants.  Sharing her hospitality and concern for all, she became beloved grandmother for the entire community.


Engagement Good for our Health

Positive aging makes the best of our mental, physical and social abilities, extending ourselves for our own sake as well as for the sake of others.  More than half a century ago, psychologist Erik Erikson identified Generativity as central to a later life well lived.  Generativity refers to engaging with life in family and community, especially investing in younger generations.  Indeed, research shows that older people who volunteer are both physically and mentally healthier than those who do not engage in the community.

Community Agencies Need to Create Diverse Opportunities for Engagement

Social profit agencies and community organizations such as schools and public health depend on volunteers to provide many of their services. New models of generative aging highlight the need for agencies to create more diverse roles which enable different elders to serve in meaningful ways.  As Dan Pink argues in his book Drive,  people thrive on work (including unpaid work) that offers the opportunity for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Creating Community for Seniors Who Serve

Let us broaden the dialogue about civic engagement  to address the need for supporting older volunteers.

Turnover among volunteers in retirement is often as much as 30% in a year – reflecting losses in enthusiasm and community engagement among retirees but also organizational losses of recruitment and training resources. Cutbacks often mean that the role of volunteer coordinator is assigned to an already busy member of the organization and that opportunities to gain a feeling of belonging and appreciation are limited.

In my regular community and organizational talks on aging, I have begun to emphasize volunteering – not only as a major opportunity for personal growth but also as a challenge for the community to provide support or for seniors to create their own supports for civic engagement.  Creating circles of trust for seniors involved in the community can meet a number of objectives – help seniors to discern the best match between their talents and community need, provide support when agencies fall short, help seniors to find their voice so they can contribute better in their volunteer roles, and foster discussion of civic engagement in the context of participants’ own aging.

The Ignatian Volunteer Corps exemplifies this approach. The organization recruits seniors to serve the urban poor while providing small groups, Internet connections, and periodic retreats to foster continual reflection which supports and inspires their service as well as their development as aging persons.

Circles for Seniors in Service could readily be set up within faith communities and senior centres  — where the diversity of community engagements would foster discussion of how different roles fit well (or less well) for different individuals at different stages along their post-retirement career.

Your Thoughts about Older Volunteers

What are your ideas for supporting senior volunteers? What resources and models can you tell us about?


Second Journey promotes mindfulness, service and community in the second half of life.  Two stimulating special issues on Community and Aging have appeared in this year’s newsletters.

1. Community – Live it!, edited by Gayatri Erlandson. These articles provide a picture of what is needed — and what is possible — for older adults living in intentional communities.  Four  sections highlight the path from vision to celebration — Community: Envision It!, Community: Build It!, Community: Live It!, and Community: Celebrate It!    

2. Aging in Community, edited by Janice Blanchard. ‘Aging in community’ refers to communities created by small groups of people committed to helping elders stay in their homes and stay meaningfully connected to their communities. From essays that describe the vision of aging in community, to specific programs you can adapt to your neighborhood, these writings may inspire you to create ways to age at home while nurturing and deepening a meaningful connection to community.


We can learn so much about how aging affects men and women from varied backgrounds and in varied cultures by reading novels. Remember Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea or Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.

Nominate your favourite novels on aging by Nov. 30th for inclusion in my early December blog.


Social profit and other community organizations often need writers to prepare articles based on interviews with clients, staff, and volunteers about their experiences.  Writers can also recruit and edit stories written by individuals living with specific diseases or disabilities.  For example, Liz Pearl of Toronto has edited stories written by stroke survivors, Brain Attack – The Journey Back  and also by people living with multiple sclerosis  MS—My Story – A Collection of Inspirational Voices.


Make a list of the ways you have volunteered or contributed to community (local and beyond) in the stages of your life: youth (perhaps including your parents’ activities), early adulthood, middle age (mid-career, children grown), and post retirement.

Then write about the high’s and low’s in your volunteer career.  What changes do you observe over the years? What activities and relationships have you found most satisfying?


Marc Freedman has written four books exploring how individuals in the second half of life can help address some of society’s most pressing challenges through paid or unpaid civic engagement:

Corporation for National & Community Service. Keeping Baby Boomers Volunteering: A Research Brief on Volunteer Retention and Turnover.

HR Council for the Non Profit Sector. The Boomer Boon: Generating Ideas about Engaging Baby Boomers in the Non Profit Sector

Imagine Canada. Engaging Retired Leaders as Volunteers.

Imagine Canada. Giving, Volunteering & Participating.

Roszak, T. (2007). The Making of an Elder Culture: Reflections on the Future of America’s Most Audacious Generation. Chapel Hill NC: Second Journey.

Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College. Just Do It?… Maybe Not! Insights on Activity in Later Life from the Life & Times.


Our society cries out for volunteers, interested not in personal achievement but in serving their fellow man. Such lives can never be without meaning or excitement. People who live this way will never be overwhelmed by a sense of uselessness or futility.
~ Rabbi Bernard Baskin

Wisdom is the most positive and acceptable trait of people who live long lives.
The challenge is to stimulate imaginations
to combine that wisdom with activity and social engagement
to make it meaningful in one’s life and in the world.
~ Mary Catherine Bateson

“Volunteering is the rent we pay” for a long life.
~ B. Groves

A vocation is something you feel compelled to do,
or at least something that fills you with a sense of meaning.
It is something you choose because of what it allows you to say with your life…
It is, above all else, something that lets you love.
~ Kent Nerburne

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something
and to do it very, very well.
~ Bishop Oscar Romero


With this autumn photo, I bid you adieu,