Senior volunteers give back to community

  • November 21, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - The Notre Dame Cathedral parish in Ottawa may have 460 volunteers, young and old, but that doesn’t mean there is never a void to fill.

Alannah Lennon has been volunteering at the cathedral with her husband Stan for about 12 years now. As retirees, they find it’s easier to be involved in parish life, from attending daily Mass to helping out, because their time is more flexible.

But volunteering for the church is not just something to do.

“We’re not just doing it to fill time but doing it because we receive many blessings in return,” said Lennon. “We make it a prayer and many other people do that too.”

The Lennons are part of a large number of retirees and seniors involved in their parish communities across the country. Although stereotypically older parishioners tend to be eucharistic ministers, money counters and lectors, while also most likely the ones to look after the maintenance of their church building and organizing the food for church socials, they aren’t shy to bring their talents where they’re needed.

In the past few years, the Lennons have often suited up for the 12:30 p.m. Sunday Mass as altar servers — a job usually occupied by children and teens.

“It just kind of falls into your lap and it’s a matter of filling a need when there’s an opening,” she said.

The Lennons co-ordinate the altar-serving schedule and need to make sure there’s somebody to take their place when they go south for a few months in the winter. However, they continue to volunteer in a variety of positions, where needed.

“They certainly bring their life experience and being able to differentiate and nuance their work, but they bring as much energy as the young people,” said Msgr. Pat Powers, rector of the cathedral. “There are younger people who are helping out in all the ministries, but there is no doubt that as people retire, they have more time to commit.”

According to a 1999 survey, Canadians peaked in their amount of volunteerism as they reached their 40s, with numbers falling afterwards, but that differed within a religious context. Sixty- and 70-year olds who attended religious services on a weekly basis outperformed non-religious Canadians with double the amount of volunteerism.

“If they have a connection to their faith community they don’t stop volunteering,” said Deborah Gardner, executive director of Volunteer Toronto.

She added that seniors who volunteer don’t necessarily consider their involvement with the church as volunteer work.

“They see it as a place of calling or their responsibility as being part of that congregation,” said Gardner. “Many volunteers will volunteer in their community beyond the community of their church. Or in their parish, they will volunteer with something that reaches people beyond their parish.”

She said often seniors will not restrict their expertise and hospitality to the church walls, citing the Out of the Cold program to feed and shelter the homeless as an example where parishioners from various faith communities, including the Catholic Church, volunteer their hospitality and their cooking for the homeless — church and community volunteerism in one.

But something else that retirees bring, she adds, is their concept of loyalty — of working in one job “for the gold watch.”

“The loyalty they showed in their work translates into their volunteer experience,” she said. “They tend to have volunteered at a place for a number of years, whereas with younger people, now it’s very transitory.”

With better health care, and extended mobility for aging seniors, Gardner said, people are more active for longer periods in their retirement. Of course, their volunteerism starts to diminish as that mobility becomes more difficult with decreasing physical abilities.

Marion Barszczyk, program manager for Catholic Charities of Toronto, said she has observed a definite range in the age of volunteers, from teens to seniors. But of course, each one chooses to volunteer in their church and in their community for different reasons.

“Younger people might volunteer to gain work experience or to get high school volunteer hours; those who are a little older might do it to balance off their academic placement. More established professionals are looking for ways to share their gifts and give back to the community,” she said.

She added that seniors are “the backbones,” bringing expertise and experience, and that most of them are quite supportive of new ideas.

“Experience is something very useful in planning the use of limited resources,” said Barszczyk. “They’ve got good judgment based on years of experience.”

Volunteering at church can also mean social engagement for those who no longer head off to work on a daily basis, through things like seniors choirs, she added.

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