Sage: What types of volunteer work are good for retirees?

Dear Sage:


My Dear Wife has been researching potential volunteer activities in our community and has decided that spending time with hospice patients could be the best option. She has a small circle of close friends in the town we’ve lived in for 45 years, plays mahjong and cards and knits quilts. My father and her father were both in nursing homes, and she reminds me that she felt very comfortable as a caregiver and was able to use humor to brighten their day. She’d say things like, ‘Well, looks like you won’t be pitching for the Red Sox this afternoon!” or, “A little slow today, huh? Will you have time to dress for the prom tonight?” She did seem to have a gift for humor without betraying her sense of dread as they approached the end of their lives. But she can be very emotional, and I’m concerned that she’ll become overwhelmed and get depressed and obsessed with death and spend a lot of time at wakes and funerals. Is my concern justified?


                                                                                – Jittery in Marblehead, Massachusetts


Dear Jittery:


God bless your wife for thinking about joining thousands of others who help hospice staffs by sitting with patients, giving family caregivers a few hours to get away, assist with office tasks, do errands, cook meals and perform other functions. Will your wife fit in? It sounds as if she’s enthusiastic and has a great personality for such incredibly meaningful – and, for many, highly fulfilling – work. She will know soon whether this is the right fit for her, as will the hospice, but she seems to have a full life that offers plenty of variety and fun.


Volunteering, by definition, is almost always aimed at helping people in need. Very few of us get to become consumer representatives called upon to test the seaworthiness of 80-foot yachts by sailing the Caribbean during shakedown cruises … or are recruited as wine taste-testers for, say, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1869 at $232,692 per bottle …  or get to escort best-actor and best-actress winners off the stage at the Oscars … or park Ferraris at the Paris auto show.

On the other hand, not every opportunity is likely to be totally satisfying. It would take a special person, for instance, to put office software skills to work as a liaison between an organization and ten insurance companies known to have bureaucracies like the CIA … or to run a Homeowners’ Association in a New York City condo association with 4,000 units and 12,000, um, friendly residents … or to invite time-share salespeople to come up with a concept for a church fund-raising auction. Similarly, while you may adore your grandchildren like no other human beings on the planet, would you want to take care of them from birth through the age of 18 while your children travel the world as tour guides (come on, be honest!!!)?


There are countless alternatives, from school tutoring … to leading tours in museums … playing music in a nursing home … spending time with kids, as with Big Brothers Big Sisters … assisting in an animal shelter … building or repairing homes with Habitat for Humanity … greeting visitors at your local hospital or library … joining a Red Cross  humanitarian effort… spending time with veterans … or delivering meals or simply packing boxes at food banks.


Volunteering can be one of the most fulfilling activities of your life. But you most certainly should feel engaged, believe in what you are doing, and enjoy a sense of camaraderie (or at least respect) from those you will be interacting with. Turnover is a huge problem for charitable organizations, and it is very costly – in large part because recruiting and the training process can be extensive and expensive.


If you quickly perceive that this will not turn out to be the quintessential match for you, the Sage suggests that you acknowledge it up front, both for your sake and the sake of the agency. If it’s too much like a cumbersome or frightful job – if you find it akin to paving roads in Phoenix in July, or paddling a canoe during a hurricane in the middle of the North Atlantic, or trying to get through to an IRS agent for advice at 11:59 p.m. on April 14  – then be realistic about any lack of connection and ask yourself if another charity might be more suitable and rewarding. You should be passionate about what you’re doing and believe strongly that your contributions, time and commitment are appreciated and valued.


Meanwhile, just in case, you can always put your name in to help out at the Masters golf tournament … spend a few months taking over for your kid and leading travel tours of the Mediterranean (after all, your heir will certainly need a break from time to time!) … and inform the people at HGTV that you’d love to offer up your home for a free $250,000 renovation.


And, Dear Jittery, The Sage wishes your wife all the blessings as she tries out hospice and hopes that you, too, can find a great opportunity. Perhaps you can create a nonprofit of your own – get a few multi-millionaires to donate their 50-foot sailboats and teach young kids to sail from that beautiful Marblehead Harbor!


Humbly Yours,

The Sage