Life after retirement opens up a whole new chapter. Many of us choose to put their hands up and volunteer their time to help others. We explore the world of the volunteer and meet older people who are giving their time to make Leeds a better place.
WORDS: TOM BAILEY
JUDY WOLF, ANGIE SMILES AND MALLY HARVEY
JAN/FEB 2024 ISSUE
When Jenny moved back to Leeds after thirty years away, she found herself at a bit of a loose end. “It was a shock to the system,” she says. “I’d always been very active but when I got up here, I thought, what am I going to do?” Before retirement, Jenny ran hotels with her husband in Kent; she returned to the North after he died to be nearer family. “I wanted to see my grandchildren growing up,” Jenny confides. However, you can’t see family all the time – you need to make a life of your own. Jenny was in her early 70s and still pretty fit.
She decided that she still had something to contribute to society: she would volunteer. “I just felt as though I wanted to give something back,” she says. But where? And how? One day, Jenny was watching TV and up popped actor and presenter Ross Kemp. He was talking about the RVS (the Royal Voluntary Service) and something pinged in Jenny’s brain. She knew them in their original form as the “Women’s Voluntary Service”. The organisation was set up in the 1930s to help with the war effort, but now works to enrich the lives of older people. Jenny hopped on to the internet, looked them up and decided to contact the charity, offering them her help. The RVS responded; they run a project in LS7 called Happy Heathy Lives. “They were desperate for befrienders,” says Jenny with a smile. “And, well, I can talk to anybody!” A year later and Jenny is involved in a huge number of activities co-ordinated by the RVS, supporting older people across Leeds. She runs a monthly book group, a cookery course, helps out at a coffee morning and is involved with lots of other groups and workshops. Jenny’s life has been transformed. “I feel like it’s given me so much more to enjoy in life,” she say.
“I’ve got to know so many people. I was invited to a lady’s 90th birthday party the other week!”
"We see people with all kinds of different stories. Some really sad stories. But volunteering gives that sense of hope and of opportunity."
Jenny is not alone in her desire to “give something back”. According to the UK Civil Society Almanac, people aged 65 – 74 are “most likely to volunteer formally, on a regular basis”. There are millions of older people rolling up their sleeves and putting their hands up to volunteer. A poll by Jenny’s chosen volunteer organisation, the RVS, found that two-fifths of those over 60 help out with at least a couple of charities – that’s over 2 million people. Often the media portrays older people as a drain on society, their pensions sucking a huge hole in the nation’s finances. The Office for Budget Responsibility reveals that around 11% of all government spending is on pensions. However, when you factor in the unpaid work older people do, things start to look a bit different. Think about all the work older people do for free: running workshops and coffee mornings, supporting people in need, organising fetes and community festivals – even looking after grandchildren. One study estimates that older people contribute around £48 billion to the economy, just in unpaid labour. The reality is that much of what we value in society is built on the work of people who have retired. “Many people may believe that retirement is an opportunity to sit back and relax,” says David McCullough, the CEO of the RVS. “On the contrary, thousands of older people are committed to helping as many people as they can.”
As Jenny found, retirement can be tricky. Judy retired a couple of years ago and became a regular Shine writer. “I always wanted to write,” she says. Though Judy adapted well to retirement, finding things to do pretty quickly, she was aware that some ex-colleagues had struggled. “In the early days, I felt like I had lost my sense of purpose,” says Maureen. “I didn’t know what my life was about. This felt really scary. It felt like my brain was seizing up.” Like Jenny, Maureen’s partner had died and she was left inevitably bereft. Though it’s a common experience, knowing that other people are grieving doesn’t help much when you’re in the thick of it. “I wondered what I was going to do,” Maureen recalls. “If I had been at work, I would have had that purpose and support.” All of us find meaning in the jobs we do; when we retire it can feel a little discombobulating. And if we are left alone, it can be doubly disorienting. Another of Judy’s ex-colleagues had a hard time initially. “When I was working, I felt important,” says Craig. “I was doing something good. I was respected and had a reputation. Now there are days when I get up and wonder what to do.” Volunteering is one option of many; Maureen decided to take up yoga and then she joined a gym. “Getting fit is giving me interaction with other people and gets me out of the house,” she says. Mark is trying a variety of things to give him a sense of purpose. “I am learning to play the guitar,” he says. And that’s not all Mark is up to. “I am enjoying volunteering in the warehouse for a local charity,” he says. “I can help out but don’t need to commit to this every week.” Volunteering can become part of your weekly routine; just one of the things you do to lend life structure.
“You must get out and have things to do,” warns Maureen. She thinks that staying in the house all day can be harmful for your health. She also has some practical advice for those who have just retired: “Take a couple of months to think about what you want to do. Don’t make a list because if you then don’t do it you might feel like a failure. Keep to a routine, don’t waste your day.”
“Anyone can be a volunteer. And volunteering can be anything. It might not be what you think it is."
Everyone is different. You might throw yourself wholeheartedly into volunteering like Jenny and find yourself doing something every day, or you might prefer just to help out once a week like Mark. Take the stories of and Jackie and Sally: two volunteers with vey different experiences. Jackie volunteers with Older Wiser Local Seniors (OWLS); she helps out with running a social group in Headingley every Monday morning. Jackie recently retired and was careful to find out as much as she could about the volunteering opportunity that suited her. “I went online to research what was out there,” she says. “Having managed 150 people and lots of projects, I didn’t want to do something where someone was going to tell me how to stack a shelf, or something like that.” Jackie was very clear to keep the scope of the volunteering limited. Like Mark, it’s something she does that’s just a small part of her life. “I don’t have to come every week,” Jackie says “I’m not obliged to do it. The flexibility is the main thing. Not feeling too pressured.” Jackie’s idea of volunteering couldn’t be more different to Sally’s. Sally retired as a teacher in her early 60s and decided she wanted a big change. Some friends and relatives had died early and Sally didn’t want to waste any time. She signed up with an agency called “Real: Gap Years for Grown-Ups” and ended up in Rajasthan, India. And things didn’t end there: this “gap” in her life al- lowed Sally to re-examine her whole life. She remembered how, as a child, she always wanted to be an oceanographer. Sally then spent four years studying for an MSc at Southampton University and emerged with a whole new career! “I was the first female hydrographic survey skipper,” she says. Now 75, Sally has retired – again. But she still works part-time in a primary school. Jackie and Sally’s stories act as a useful reminder: volunteering comes in all shapes and sizes. Like Jackie, you may wish to take all the responsibility off your shoulders and remove the stress; or you may want to make a big life-change and move to India like Sally. Either approach is valid.
Whatever aspect of volunteering appeals to you, it can be difficult to know where to start. That’s where Andrina Dawson comes in. Andrina works for Voluntary Action Leeds (VAL) and it’s her job to help people work out which volunteering opportunity might suit them best. “The work we do is really about exploring what people’s skills and interests are and figuring out how we can best match that to the volunteering that’s available in the city,” says Andrina. Though she doesn’t work specifically with older people, Andrina finds that many retired people are keen to volunteer. “Older people have tonnes of life experience, tonnes of professional experience,” she says. “And it’s all transferable.” Jenny’s and Maureen’s experiences of grief are quite common. Andrina elaborates: “We often find that people might pop into the volunteer centre and say, my husband died two years ago and I feel like I’m ready to get out now. Or, my wife’s got Parkinson’s and we now have a carer, so I have two days where I can get out and do something. We see people with all kinds of different stories. Some really sad stories. But volunteering gives that sense of hope and of opportunity.” The volunteer centre is a specially-built office based within Leeds Kirkgate Market. Anyone can pop in to meet the team and find out more about volunteering. “There’s someone there to listen and coach you through the process,” Andrina assures. Some come in with a fixed idea about the type of volunteering they want to do: “People might say, I really like gardening, I’ve got green fingers. Or, I used to be a decorator – you can quite easily think about a great charity that would be a perfect fit.” Or they might want something local to them: “It’s based on geography. We’ll look at people’s postcodes and say, here’s what’s going on in your area.”
In every area of Leeds, there are amazing people doing amazing things. It’s clear that they are helping others, but they are also helping themselves. There are obvious personal benefits that every volunteer attests to. “I get so much out of it,” says RVS volunteer Jenny. Jackie at OWLS agrees: “It’s the satisfaction of having made a small difference to someone’s day.” Every volunteer you meet will have a similar story. Matt is 85 and moved to Headingley a couple of years ago. He’s part of OWLS too. Matt is a lifelong volunteer; he’s done all sorts, including driving all over the world, delivering aid to countries in emergency situations. Now he runs quizzes, does the washing-up and loads more. “I’ll do virtually anything they want doing,” he admits. For Matt it’s a no-brainer. “It’s about helping people,” he says. “Why not use your time gainfully?” Joan, another OWLS volunteer, is a crafter. She is inspired by the abilities of the people she teaches. “I know a lot of people think they can’t do things,” says Joan. “You can show them that they can. And they are often far better than me!” Volunteering gives you connection, it can help you meet people, it can inspire you – but it’s also good for you. Studies show that volunteering later in life may protect the brain against cognitive decline and dementia. Rachel Whitmire, an American epidemiologist and Alzheimer’s expert, led a study that included 2,500 older people. “You’re not in control of your family history or age — you can’t turn back the clock. But you are in control of how you spend your day and life,” says Rachel. “Volunteering is about keeping your brain active. It’s also about socializing, which keeps you engaged and happy, and potentially lowers stress.” The study indicated that the volunteering was associated with lower cognitive decline. Volunteering isn’t a cure-all, but it can certainly help you.
With all this positivity, it’s easy to get carried away. But the news isn’t all good. The fact is that, across the country, fewer people are volunteering nowadays. It’s something Andrina at Voluntary Action Leeds has noticed. “During Covid, lots of older people were shielding. And not everyone came back to volunteering afterwards,” she admits. “There was a sense of fear and concern about going out. It may be about confidence or just getting out of the habit of going out into the community.” Some older people do object to being made to fill out endless forms and attend interminable training sessions. Often, volunteering can become a chore! A recent Guardian article looked into instances where volunteering can go wrong, quoting Justin Davis Smith of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.“Managing volunteers is complex,” he says. “They are not just a way of getting things done on the cheap.” Is it true that you have to do lots of admin as a volunteer? Andrina explains that some roles need a lot of checks, but most don’t. It’s about choosing the right role at the right organisation. Jackie at OWLS did a lot of research before she signed up. “I was quite selective,” she recalls. She’s careful to not take on too much. A good organisation will always take no for an answer. As for training, Jackie found this minimal – and she actually volunteered to do a course she was personally interested in. “I did a dementia training, which was really interesting,” she says. “My mother-in-law was in the early stages of dementia so it was good to hear about things that we could have done differently.” Often older people think they can’t be volunteers because of their own physical limitations; how can you help other people if you are stuck at home for health reasons. Andrina dispels this myth: “The types of roles for volunteering are vast. There’s a role for everyone! Whatever physical challenges people might be experiencing, whatever mobility issues people may have, there’s always something they can do.” During Covid, lots of people set up befriending projects, where volunteers could phone lonely people for a chat every week. Such a simple idea – and you don’t even need to leave the house. However, it’s important to recognise that “formal” volunteering isn’t for everyone. There is a distinction between informal and formal volunteering. It may be that you pop round to a neighbour’s every week to see if they need anything. You may not be doing this as part of an organisation; you may not have a badge saying “volunteer”, but you’re still making that connection, being part of a community, adding to the general happiness of the city.
Anyone can be a volunteer. And volunteering can be anything. It might not be what you think it is. “There really is a huge variety of things out there that people can do!” says Andrina. Even walking can be volunteering. Laurence goes for a walk every Monday with a lady in North Leeds; he’s part of a project called Move Mates that links people up. “I loved the idea of a simple process involving getting out of the house and having a chat with someone,” says Laurence. After Covid we all became a bit isolated and this small idea of walking together has enormous benefits. Laurence explains: “It’s almost ineffable, beyond words. But there is something special about being social and supportive, doing something as simple as walking with another person in your local neighbourhood. Making that commitment and keeping to it.” Small things, changing lives.
So if anyone can be a volunteer, you can too. Speak to any older person who helps out – they’ll agree. “Try it,” says Matt at OWLS. “What do you do otherwise? Sit and read the paper? Sit in the pub all day? Get out there and be active!” Jenny thinks similarly: “You’re never too old to start! You’ve got to find something to keep yourself going, otherwise you’ll end up as a cabbage!” Put your hand up, say yes, help yourself and help others. As Matt says, “Give it a go!”
Leeds Volunteer Centre
Located in the food court area of Leeds Kirkgate Market
Open Monday – Friday 10am – 4pm. Pop in or book an appointment. Phone: 0113 244 6050
OWLS (Older Wiser Local Seniors)
Address: 52 North Lane, Headingley, Leeds, LS6 3HU
Phone: 0113 369 7077
Happy Healthy Lives at RVS (Royal Voluntary Service)
Address: 45 Potternewton Lane, Chapel Allerton, Leeds, LS73LW
Phone: 0113 887 3597
Phone: 0113 873 0327
Q+A Q&A: Lesley Noble
Lesley Noble started Hug on a Tray to provide TV, snacks and drinks to cancer patients in hospital in Leeds. She is an enthusiastic and vibrant 74-year-old, full of energy and passion. Lesley started the project alongside some friends when she was in her late 60s. Mally Harvey meets her to find out more.
Have you always been someone who wanted to make the world better?
I disliked school, leaving a soon as I could at 15, with no qualifications. Since then I’ve had a million jobs. In 1984, I got a job as a home care assistant. That immediately put me in touch with the community. I had found my niche - although I didn’t realise it at the time. I became a team leader, I learned British Sign Language, I took patients to hospital, I did bereavement counselling course - and decided to set up my own Widows’ Club. Then I become a chaplaincy volunteer, which opened the door to the hospital. I felt very privileged to do all this training, because at school I didn’t want to learn a thing, but then as an adult I realised what opportunities were out there for things that interested me. I was a meals-on-wheels coordinator and so met many people. My volunteer chaplaincy work led me into the hospitals.
You raised money to provide TVs? What else?
At the same time a lovely charity in the Bexley wing had put kettles in all of the rooms, and I had a light bulb moment. I thought, “Maybe we can put in tea bags, coffee, sugar, cups, spoons, milk chocolate and plain biscuits, polo mints.”
And you did all this as a volunteer?
I need to say, none of the volunteers get paid. We do it because we want to do it. It’s about giving something to someone at a bad time in their lives. It is said, “You get nothing for nothing”, but with us you get something for nothing.
How do you raise money?
We were buying lots of items from the pound shop. A manager offered to promote us at the till, by asking customers if they were prepared to pay an extra pound to benefit patients at the Bexley wing. Five days later I got a phone call from him asking us to go and collect the £460 worth of donated goods - and it’s never stopped. During lockdown we had so much, we not only covered St. James’s, we took things to the LGI as well. All due to the kindness and generosity of the community. I’m a great believer in ‘unity in community’ and this is especially true since we got the shop in Otley.
You have a shop too?
The shop came about because we were getting lots of goods from different sources and, during lockdown, we were able to store them in our homes. But after lockdown, we realised we needed proper storage, a base – and a window where we could advertise. The one we found was like a dustbin, a rubbish site, it was derelict. I could see the potential, but the girls were looking at me in dismay, they had many misgivings. I wanted a Santa’s Grotto up-and-running in time for Christmas. A friend who is a tradesman thought it doable - but would need some money. We signed for the lease one Sunday in October and (this is where my faith comes in) on the following Wednesday I got a cheque through my door for £5000! I was in bits. A lady who wished to remain anonymous wanted us to renovate the shop and gave us the donation in memory of her late husband. My friend, with a group of his colleagues, set about clearing and renovating the shop. They volunteered and worked for free, they did a wonderful job. New toilet, wash basin, completely rewired. They did an amazing job and we were up and running with Santa’s Grotto for Christmas. I believed what happened was through someone a lot more powerful than me. I believe God’s hand was in there.
What do you get out of being involved with the project?
it’s a privilege to do what we do. We meet some wonderful people and it’s not what we do, it’s what we get back. It’s our passion. I’m a full person, not a half-full or half-empty person, just an optimistic, full person. I get the pleasure of sharing the kindness and love from other people for what we do, what I get back is a constant inspiration for me. I love what I do.
It’s a good question. I’m 74 and in good health, If I fell off my perch now, my big fear would be that what we have achieved for the people in the Bexley Wing wouldn’t carry on as it is. I would hate it to go pear-shaped. I want the ethics we have worked so hard for to continue. We have made sure there is provision for the televisions for some time to come but I hope someone will continue the work we have been doing.
Hug on a Tray
15 Manor Square, Otley LS21 3AP email@example.com