Years ago, the word "retirement" might have evoked images of white-haired couples sitting in rocking chairs on their front porches. But with both men and women living longer and enjoying better health into their later years, retirement has become an extremely active phase of life in which many seniors finally have time to devote to causes and interests that have previously taken a backseat to careers or family obligations [sources: Toscano, Prisuta].
The first wave of the "boomer" generation turns 65 in 2011, brimming with enough energy, life experience and professional knowledge to benefit volunteer organizations of every kind [source: Grinberg]. And with so many charities and nonprofits in need of help, there's no shortage of volunteer opportunities available for those willing to donate their time and efforts during retirement.
We've selected this list of the 10 best volunteer activities for retirees based on the need for volunteers in these areas, the feasibility of volunteering, and the willingness of affiliated organizations to accommodate and reach out to retired volunteers. Do any of these volunteer activities seem like fulfilling ways to spend your retirement years? Read on to find out!
Habitat for Humanity
Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that builds and repairs simple, affordable housing with (not for!) people who need shelter. Habitat volunteers work side by side with those who have qualified to buy a Habitat for Humanity home, helping to build not only houses, but also a sense of pride and community for the new homeowners and their neighborhood [source: Habitat for Humanity]. While Habitat describes itself as a nondenominational Christian ministry, both its volunteers and the families it helps come from all backgrounds and faiths across North America, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia [source: Habitat for Humanity].
Many retired and semi-retired volunteers work with Habitat for Humanity on build sites, in disaster relief zones and in affiliate offices. Retirees account for most of the 6,000 registered "RV Care-A-Vanners," a group of Habitat for Humanity volunteers who drive their own RVs to participate in homebuilding projects throughout the United States. RV Care-A-Vanners pay their own way, but in many cases the travel expenses related to their service are tax deductible [source: Habitat for Humanity].
In areas without a Habitat for Humanity affiliate, church groups and local community organizations such as Good Works Inc. welcome the assistance of retired volunteers who help perform necessary repairs for low-income homeowners [source: Good Works].
Helping Troops, Military Families and Veterans
Opportunities abound for retired military personnel and civilian retirees wishing to lend a hand and show their gratitude to veterans or active servicemen and women.
The mission of the USO is to create a better quality of life for military personnel and their families in the United States and abroad, and USO volunteers help with everything from greeting troops as they return from overseas tours and making hot coffee in USO offices to providing warm meals and warm blankets to troops on airport layovers while they're awaiting flights home [source: USO].
The Veterans Affairs Volunteer Service Program of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (VAVS) supports wounded veterans and others throughout the VA medical care system. VAVS volunteers also provide services to homeless veterans and help to honor veterans by creating and maintaining shrines and tributes through their work with the National Cemetery Administration [source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs].
Working with Children
Retirees living far from their grandchildren (or waiting patiently for their grown children to produce some) might especially enjoy the rewards of volunteering with children. The Senior Corps Foster Grandparent program connects volunteers age 55 and over with children in Head Start centers, schools and other youth facilities [source: Senior Corps]. The Big Brothers Big Sisters organization gives adult volunteers ("bigs") the chance to build lasting one-on-one relationships with children in need of caring adults in their lives [source: Big Brothers Big Sisters].
Many children's hospitals rely on volunteers for activities such as tutoring patients, reading stories, monitoring playrooms and assisting families with whatever they may need during a child's stay [source: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia].
Most volunteer opportunities involving children will require a background check and a commitment to volunteer for a certain number of hours per week over a specified duration, such as three, six or 12 months.
In some cases, volunteering with children can be financially beneficial as well as personally fulfilling: Some foster grandparent volunteers qualify to receive a tax-free hourly stipend, and a growing number of public school systems offer seniors a rebate on property taxes in exchange for their time volunteering in the classroom [sources: Senior Corps, Garcia].
Increasingly, retirees who find themselves with both the time and the financial resources to travel seek adventures that will allow them to give back to society while seeing the world. Also called "voluntourism" or "service learning," volunteer vacations can be tailored to a wide range of skills and interests.
Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) offers "service learning" trips lasting anywhere from five nights to three weeks. Through these programs, volunteers have the opportunity to participate in activities such as tutoring in Navajo Reservation schools, restoring historic sites, preserving coral reefs, protecting endangered wildlife populations and even digging for dinosaurs [source: Road Scholar].
"Boomers" account for about 30 percent of the ranks of Global Volunteers, an organization providing one-week to 24-week "Adventures in Service" placements in communities throughout the United States and abroad [source: Global Volunteers]. Volunteers in this organization may find themselves teaching English, providing health care services, building or repairing homes, or working with at-risk children and teens -- all at the invitation and direction of local leaders [source: Global Volunteers].
Hunger and malnutrition affect families throughout the United States and around the world even in times of economic prosperity, and the need for hunger relief becomes even more dire during periods of recession and high unemployment. As the number of families seeking food assistance continues to grow, seniors make up an increasingly large portion of both the population seeking help and the volunteers providing it. At Northwest Harvest, a hunger relief agency serving all of Washington state, nearly 20 percent of the clients served are over 55 years old, and people over the age of 65 make up a great majority of the volunteer force [source: Northwest Harvest].
Seniors have long served other seniors through Meals on Wheels, an organization of nutrition programs devoted to preventing hunger and malnutrition in the senior population throughout all 50 U.S. states as well as the U.S. territories. As many as 1.7 million volunteers, many of them retirees, deliver more than 1 million meals each day to seniors in need [source: Meals on Wheels].
Retirees also contribute to hunger relief by volunteering with local food banks or through participation in community gardens that provide the food banks with fresh produce [source: Heagerty].
Devastating events such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the destructive 2011 tornadoes in Alabama and Georgia have put the spotlight on the need for specially trained volunteers to respond to natural disasters of every kind. Red Cross volunteers fly across the United States and overseas to provide assistance to residents affected by floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters. While disaster relief volunteers are often required to maintain certifications such as CPR or other lifesaving skills, volunteers are also needed to handle supplies, donations and administrative tasks, as well as offer comfort and assistance to survivors of the crisis [source: Red Cross].
Retired physicians, nurses, EMTs, pharmacists, and other medical professionals can also lend their time and talents to the Medical Reserve Corps, a volunteer disaster relief organization under the direction of the Office of the Surgeon General of the United States. The Medical Reserve Corps also needs volunteers -- including retirees -- to serve as interpreters, chaplains, office workers and legal advisers, among other positions [source: Medical Reserve Corps].
Docent or Tour Guide
The retirement years provide seniors with many opportunities to turn their lifelong hobbies into full-time volunteer pursuits, or to learn more about topics that have long held their interests. Universities, museums, and other public and private organizations frequently offer docent programs that train volunteers to lead tours, preserve landmarks or educate visitors. Many botanical gardens, historical sites and land conservation groups offer similar opportunities for volunteers to learn on the job.
Even retirees with seemingly esoteric skills or interests might be surprised at the volunteer opportunities available in their favorite subject areas: Volunteers are needed to drive and maintain antique steam cars, rehabilitate birds of prey, lead tours of Kentucky's largest equestrian-themed park, and for just about everything in between [sources: Auburn Heights Preserve, UC Davis Retiree Center, Kentucky Horse Park].
Baby boomers are no strangers to activism, having participated in the Civil Rights Movement, advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment, marched in countless Vietnam and Gulf War and "No Nukes" protests, and contributed to thousands of lesser-known causes along the way. So many retirees will probably feel right at home volunteering for a political campaign, grassroots organization, or political action committee for a candidate or cause they believe in.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, you'll have no trouble finding a campaign eager to put you to work knocking on doors, calling voters, circulating petitions, or leading rallies for or against a given issue. Even local candidates typically have Web sites listing the volunteer opportunities within their campaigns, and national Web sites such as idealist.org and Volunteer Match can help you find other causes and individuals that resonate with your beliefs [sources: idealist.org, Volunteer Match].
Organizations of all kinds need legal representation, whether to advocate on behalf of the populations they serve or to represent the organizations themselves in contract negotiations and other civil or business matters [source: International Senior Lawyers Project].
Legal volunteers may be called upon to advocate for foster children, defend the rights of minorities and represent battered spouses in domestic abuse cases. Volunteer attorneys also work on behalf of environmental organizations, public lands trusts, animal rights groups, and even governments of developing nations striving to advance human rights and economic development [source: International Senior Lawyers Project]. Retirees with legal backgrounds also bring valuable skills and experience to their roles in administrative offices and on the boards of directors of non-profit organizations.
Humane Societies and Animal Shelters
Local animal shelters, rescues and humane societies are always in need of volunteers to care for animals, organize fundraising events, perform administrative tasks, or even help to rescue pets in the wake of floods, fires and other natural disasters. Retirees with the time and space to look after an animal might consider serving as a "foster parent" until a permanent placement can be found for a homeless dog or cat. And volunteering with animals can provide a furry fix for animal lovers who no longer want the full-time commitment of a pet of their own. Pet owners might also consider having their pets certified through a pet therapy training program that enables them to visit patients in nursing homes, children's hospitals and hospice care.
Like many non-profit organizations, animal shelters also need legal advocates, grant writers and even graphic designers to help them get the word out about animal protection issues [source: Pacelle].
Does the Peace Corps want retired volunteers? Learn about the Peace Corps and how retired volunteers can serve
- Auburn Heights Preserve. "Become a Volunteer." (May 9, 2011) http://www.auburnheights.org/?page_id=553
- Big Brothers Big Sisters. "Big impact - proven results." (May 9, 2011) http://www.bbbs.org/site/c.9iILI3NGKhK6F/b.5961035/k.A153/Big_impact8212proven_results.htm
- Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Volunteer Opportunities." (May 9, 2011) http://www.chop.edu/about/volunteer-opportunities/programs/
- Garcia, Nelson. "Volunteers can earn property tax rebates." 9News.com. Oct. 3, 2009. (May 6, 2011) http://www.9news.com/news/story.aspx?storyid=124371&catid=339
- Good Works Inc. "About Us." (May 9, 2011) http://www.goodworksinc.org/about/index.html
- Global Volunteers. "Boomers Reach Out Abroad." (May 9, 2011) http://www.globalvolunteers.org/serve/boomers.asp
- Grinberg, Emanuella. "Boomers will redefine notions of age." CNN.com. May 9, 2011. (May 9, 2011) http://www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/05/09/baby.boomers.retirement.legacy/
- Habitat for Humanity. "Volunteer! Get involved with Habitat for Humanity." (May 9, 2011) http://www.habitat.org/getinv/default.aspx
- Heagerty, Amelia. "Row by row, islanders help a new garden grow." Vashon Maury Community Food Bank. May 20, 2009. (May 7, 2011) http://www.vashonfoodbank.org/news.html
- Idealist.org. "About You." (May 4, 2011) http://www.idealist.org/info/About/You
- International Senior Lawyers Project. "About Us." (May 9, 2011) http://www.islp.org/aboutus.html
- Kentucky Horse Park. "Volunteer." (May 9, 2011) http://kyhorsepark.com/volunteer
- Meals on Wheels. "Who We Are." (May 9, 2011) http://www.mowaa.org/page.aspx?pid=212
- Medical Reserve Corps. "About." (May 10, 2011) http://www.medicalreservecorps.gov/About
- Northwest Harvest. "Seniors: A vulnerable and vital community." Winter 2006. (May 6, 2011) http://media.redclaycms.com/sites/304/images/PDF%20Documents/2006_winter.pdf
- Pacelle, Wayne. "55 Actions for Animals and the HSUS." Humane Society of the United States. August 16, 2010. (May 9, 2011) http://hsus.typepad.com/wayne/2010/08/50-things-you-can-do.html
- Prisuta, Robert, Ph.D. "Enhancing Volunteerism among Aging Boomers." AARP. Oct. 2003. (May 9, 2011) http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/general/boomers_engagement_2.pdf
- Red Cross. "International Services." (May 9, 2011) http://www.redcross.org/portal/site/en/menuitem.86f46a12f382290517a8f210b80f78a0/?vgnextoid=127d44e75215b110VgnVCM10000089f0870aRCRD&vgnextfmt=default
- Road Scholar. "Service Learning Programs." (May 4, 2011) http://www.roadscholar.org/Programs/search_res.asp?Type=A&ProgDesc=Service+Learning
- Senior Corps. "Senior Corps Programs." (May 9, 2011) http://www.seniorcorps.gov/about/programs/index.asp
- Toscano, Paul. "Boomers Buck the Trend for Retirement Hot Spots." CNBC.com. Feb. 5, 2010. (May 7, 2011) http://www.cnbc.com/id/35259864/Boomers_Buck_the_Trend_for_Retirement_Hot_Spots
- UC Davis Retiree Center. "Volunteer Opportunities." (May 9, 2011) http://retireecenter.ucdavis.edu/volunteer.html
- United States Department of Veterans Affairs. "VA Voluntary Service." (May 7, 2011) http://www.volunteer.va.gov/index.asp
- USO. "Ways to Volunteer." (May 9, 2011) http://www.uso.org/ways-to-volunteer.aspx
- Volunteer Match. "About." (May 4, 2011) http://www.volunteermatch.org/about/