The birth of the gap-year generation brought with it the perception that travelling and volunteering is the preserve of the young. And it is true that in some ways younger people lend themselves well to volunteering abroad for extended periods of time. They often have fewer time restrictions, less responsibility and a desire to prove themselves to future employers. But, volunteering abroad is not, and should not be, restricted to a certain age group. Older volunteers can offer a wealth of experience, wisdom and knowledge that could be invaluable to their chosen project. Whether you are in the midst of a career, a full-time parent, retired, or otherwise; volunteering abroad can not only be highly beneficial for the recipients, but extremely rewarding and enriching for the volunteer.
Volunteers of all ages on the Namibia Desert Elephant Conservation project.
There are plenty of reasons to travel and volunteer, even if you aren't fresh from the clutches of education, thirsting for freedom. For some, volunteering may come as part of a sabbatical or a chance to take a break from the daily grind of the nine to five. In this respect, volunteering is not merely a chance to travel and see the world, but to broaden ones horizons and to learn about the challenges that face the environment or disadvantaged communities across the globe. It also enables volunteers who are in work to transfer their catalogue of skills to a project, making them not only more useful to the recipient, but using their time away from work doing something practical and productive. On the other hand, the passing of knowledge is a two way street, and the experiences gained could help a volunteer to find a new career path, or bring more to their career of choice.
The benefit of volunteering is not something that has gone unnoticed by the older generation. In fact, there has been a sharp rise in the numbers of older people who are choosing to volunteer, particularly in levels of retired volunteers who are rejecting the cruises and sedate holidays, in favour of a more active and productive experience. Retirees with a sense of adventure are often not only more physically fit and able, but have greater access to volunteering opportunities, making the choice to volunteer seem much more tangible. They may also realise that their wisdom and maturity is something highly valued by projects, gaining them a greater respect within the community they are based in. Applications made by the over 50's for the Peace Corps in the USA, for example, spiked by over 44 percent between the years 2007 to 2008. This trend is perhaps partially due to a failing economy, creating early layoffs and retirement packages. Leaving the country to volunteer then becomes a chance to turn a difficult situation into a positive; commencing a new, enriching and potentially life changing experience.
When the benefits for both parties are considered, it seems absurd that the gap year experience is something pigeonholed with youth. Why should they have all the fun? It's likely that the older generation have more money, experience and applicable skills than the younger generations, and still come armed with bundles of passion and enthusiasm. Volunteering can bring a new sense of purpose, and make you feel more connected with the world. And surely that is a privilege to be provided to all who desire it, regardless of the amount of time you have spent on the planet?
Author Camilla James is an Online Journalism Intern at Frontier, an international non-profit volunteering NGO that runs over 300 conservation, community, and adventure projects worldwide. She can be found blogging on Frontier's Gap Year Blog or posting on the Frontier Official Facebook page.