Blog: Retired volunteers: the giving of wisdom

Live Life is the theme of NSW Senior’s Week. In honour of Senior’s Week , we’ve decided to re-feature this article about the benefits of volunteering later in life. Read on to learn how a great team of Australian seniors are advancing the lives of people in Papua New Guinea, by volunteering their valuable life-skills.


In our youth obsessed culture, many would be forgiven for thinking that volunteering for development is a “young person’s game”. Such thoughts, however, would be mistaken.

Certainly many of Palms Australia’s volunteers over our 50 years have been young – I was 25 when departing with Palms to teach in Bougainville – and youth can bring some benefits. Young people may be more able to cope with some of the physical challenges which face volunteers, such as riding long distances on the back of a flatbed truck or walking to a remote village with their local colleagues as part of a rural outreach program. Young people may also have some technological familiarity which can assist communities coping with rapid advancement brought on by mobile phones and other communication technologies.

I hasten to add, lest I be called ageist, that neither of these advantages is contingent on youth and there are many exceptions to these rules. Furthermore, there are several potential advantages of those who volunteer later in life.

  1. Experience
    Older volunteers have a wealth of work experience to draw upon. They have seen a number of different approaches to their work over their lives and understand when each approach might be appropriate.  They know what works in their home context and while this may not work overseas, they have a firm foundation in the reasons a particular approach does work at home. Experienced volunteers have undoubtedly overcome numerous challenges in their own work history and this equips them for similar challenges overseas.  Compare this, for example to a graduate teacher who may be simultaneously trying to deal with cross-cultural understanding, the challenges of living simply, isolation from their traditional support networks and the issues faced by all new teachers. The experience of a retired volunteer also means they are often more capable at passing on their expertise to their local colleagues.
  2. Wisdom
    One big challenge facing all volunteers is reining in their own enthusiasm. Driven by a passion for a just world, volunteers often seek answers which can be implemented quickly with immediate results. This can lead to the failure to learn from past attempts. In addition to knowing what might work in different circumstances, an older volunteer may bring a healthy scepticism about any belief in quick fixes. They have seen many apparently good ideas fail and the benefit of this hindsight is both planning based on more experience and a reluctance to believe in simple solutions to complex problems. It is ironic that older individuals may be more patient and have a longer vision beyond their placement. They are aware of the long “story arc” of development which began before their time and must continue afterwards.
  3. Respect
    Often in the communities where volunteers work there remains a respect for elders which sometimes seems lost in our own culture.  This can make an older volunteer more effective in their dealings with both young people, who grant the volunteer some degree of authority, and older local people who feel more comfortable sharing their own invaluable local wisdom. Local communities are often (rightfully) suspicious of brash young individuals who come in touting their own expertise, perhaps subconsciously compensating for the lack of it. They see straight through this and the working relationship can be strained if sufficient respect is not given to the local cultures age-hierarchies. Older volunteers, on the other hand, are assumed to have much experience and much to offer.
  4. Living simply
    Have you ever spent more than a day without power? Have you washed your clothes by hand? Do you know how to drain an engine or fix a water pump without access to google? Do you know how to amuse yourself without access to social networking? Will you go crazy without access to the vast variety of cuisines available in Australia? Seriously, can you live on tinned tuna, bully beef, rice and veges? We all, young and old, love the creature comforts that modern life in Australia has brought us, but many older people remember a time before this affluence. Often the living conditions in communities where we volunteer can feel a little like a step into the past. Conditions in these communities are changing rapidly but sometimes the power or phone or water fails, sometimes the selection of food available is quite limited and sometimes you need to find ways to amuse yourself for long periods. Life in the 1950s and 60s was a long way from the comfort many Gen X and Gen Y volunteers take for granted. The practical memory of how to live simply in simple times is a huge asset.

Of course, individual results may vary. Hopefully though, young volunteers reflect on what they could learn from the above points and older people are inspired to join in and share their many gifts as overseas volunteers.

For more information on some Palms Australia placements currently engaging retired volunteers, please visit the profiles of Paul and Esther, Elaine and Peter and John Gartner in Papua New Guinea.  I’ve just visited them all and their local partners are incredibly grateful for their contributions so far. Certainly, they are among the most effective volunteers I’ve ever witnessed.

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The ideal of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the cult of progress
and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us. - Octavio Paz