12 November 2020

Untapped Potential

Volunteering is a great way for seniors and those living with disability to give back whilst making new connections. So, what’s stopping more of us from signing up?

Volunteering is a great way for seniors and those living with disability to give back whilst making new connections. So, what’s stopping more of us from signing up?

Julyne Ainsley is a person living with disability, but she is so much more. A mother of four and a grandmother of 20, the 61-year-old is also a much-loved office worker with skills across grant writing, administration support, workshop facilitation and public speaking.

Julyne has an acquired brain injury brought about as a result of prolonged domestic violence. As a result, Julyne’s cognitive thinking has been impaired, and she has short-term memory loss. In addition, she suffers from anxiety and stress from the injury.

She is also one of the increasing number of people with disability who are looking at ways to meaningfully participate in their local communities.

Despite battling low self-esteem and a lack of confidence, Julyne has now been utilising her skills through volunteer work for the past eight years.

“I volunteer about four to five hours a week. I am supported three days a week, so I tend to do my volunteer work when I have Clair with me. She is my support worker,” she says.

Her volunteering story began in 2003, and now after committing years of service, Julyne was asked to sit on the Duke Street Community House Board of Management and was recently named on the executive board of peak body Neighbourhood Houses Victoria.


The act

Those involved in the movement say the act of volunteering – which peak organisations describe as time given for the common good and without financial gain – represents one of the primary mechanisms for moving seniors and people with disability from being passive recipients of service to one that is socially responsive.

Volunteering also plays a significant role as a pathway to gainful employment, encouraging economic participation and building work skills. This is significant given older people, or people with disability, face multiple barriers, such as discrimination, and are often excluded from the labour market.


The numbers

Volunteering Australia (VA) says more than 5.8 million Australians engage in volunteering activities. This yields a 450 per cent return for every $1 invested.

According to the most recent ABS statistics, one in three adults with a disability or long-term potential health condition work without payment. A slightly higher proportion of those over 65 years of age volunteer their time, accounting for 17 per cent of all volunteers.


The barriers

Recently, VA commissioned analysis of the experience of volunteers during COVID-19. The research revealed that the decline in volunteering during the pandemic has been substantial, with nearly two thirds (65.9 per cent) of volunteers estimated to have stopped volunteering between February and April, 2020.

But it’s not just COVID-19 that has stopped more Australian seniors or those living with disability from working voluntarily. The stigma attached to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities means that often they are not afforded as many opportunities to volunteer in the community as they would like.


The bright side

The good news is that, as part of the recent VA study, research found that volunteering helped protect mental health in many ways.

They discovered that those who were able to continue volunteering during COVID-19 had better life satisfaction and psychological stress outcomes than those who had to stop or who had never volunteered in the first place. The data also showed that those who continued volunteering experienced less loneliness.


The way forward

Global health pandemics aside, organisations with an interest in getting more seniors and those living with disability into volunteer positions say new opportunities are emerging all the time.

Inclusion Melbourne, which has developed a publication called Include Me! says the types of internships, work experience positions and volunteer roles traditionally undertaken include everything from planning events or fundraising and stocktake to gardening and offering guided tours.

Virtual volunteering is also gaining traction as a way for seniors, or those living with disability to lend a hand. Tasks include creating and or maintaining websites for an organisation, performing online research, providing technical assistance to staff and clients, and helping with online marketing and communications.

Julyne, whose experiences led to her being asked onto the steering committee panel for both Department of Health and Human Services and Victoria Live, says volunteering has afforded her the chance to challenge perceptions of what disability looks like. At a personal level, there has also been many benefits, she says.

“What I get out of being a volunteer is a feeling of having a bit of control back in my life, more confidence and I don’t have that empty feeling anymore. I get a feeling of being accepted for who I am, not my disability.”