Archive for the ‘Volunteering’ Category
Thanks to everyone who commented on my last post, which was about responding to loneliness through “reaching out.” I still stand by what I say, but I do realize that I have (in a small way) contradicted myself, since in an earlier post I warned about the dangers of seeing volunteering as a solution to loneliness.
Let me elaborate. Here’s what I think *doesn’t* work. In just about any city, you can find a volunteer centre, and that centre will ask you about your general interests and then match you with a suitable organization. I have some experience with this form of mix-and-match volunteering, and in my experience it is pretty much a ticket to nowhere. If you’re lonely, you need a sense of connection, and it’s hard to feel connected to a non-profit or seniors’ centre that you have no real relationship with.
Here’s the sort of volunteering that has worked for me. In Newfoundland, there was a dog pound that was remarkably lackadaisical. You could show up any weekday between 12 and 4, walk as many dogs as you wanted, and could stay out for as long as you felt like. If you didn’t show up, it was no big deal–someone else would be there to take the dogs out. There were people around (other volunteers, the receptionists at the front desk) but it was not overly social. Most of my time was spent walking around a nearby lake, and doling out pats and praise.
I liked this volunteer opportunity because:
- it let me engage with something I deeply relate to and care about (ie., vulnerability and animals)
- it brought me into contact with like-minded others, but was not primarily social in its aims
- if I was feeling withdrawn, or having a bad day, I could skip it without throwing off anyone’s routine.
Now, I’m not saying that this situation was best for the dogs. In Toronto, where the pound is way more organized, you have to commit to a certain day & time, you have no choice in the dogs that you walk (problematic if you’re scared of certain breeds), and you don’t keep the dogs out for very long.
Probably the more structured Toronto approach is better for the canines (ie., all dogs get walked, there’s no favouritism, etc.) but that’s not my point. My point is that the mix of casualness, meaning, exercise and limited social contact was just right for my loneliness. And such volunteer gigs are hard to find.
So what I’m really saying, in what is turning into a long post, is that certain *types* of volunteer work are probably a good way to “reach out.” Not all types. Certainly not something you’ve just picked at random or been assigned to.
More on this to follow. Am still doing a lot of thinking re volunteering and reaching out. Just thought I would add some qualifying comments.
And, can I just say: It is January 7th and about 10 degrees celsius outside. This is totally weird. More on *this* to follow as well.
If you can clamour past stigma and stereotypes and tell someone you’re lonely, one of the first (no, wait, the very first) thing you’ll hear is that you should volunteer!! The basic idea is this: helping others will take your mind off your own (insignificant) worries, and you might just meet the love of your life at the food bank.
The idea that we should respond to loneliness through volunteering is too simple. Imagine saying this to a depressed person: “Go volunteer!!” It’s banal. It fails to capture how complex loneliness can be.
Many of the lonely people I spoke to had tried volunteering, and they said that that it made them feel worse. That is, not only did they feel alone, but they were standing at a food bank, or an animal shelter, or at a desk reading books for the blind, and they were still alone. Worse, all of the other volunteers might have known each other for years, so the lonely person was left feeling weird and excluded.
This doesn’t mean you should never volunteer as a means of responding to loneliness. But I think volunteering pays off the most if you would have done it despite your loneliness. I volunteer with an animal rescue organization because I care about animals—not because I’m trying to feel less lonely.
Not exactly. I have, in my years of loneliness, done an amazing amount of volunteer work. I’ve sat on Boards of Directors, walked dogs (see my posts on Animal Assisted Therapy), worked at craft fairs, joined committees…the list goes on.
None of these activities really helped my loneliness (with the exception of the dogs!). Some of them made me feel more lonely. There’s nothing worse than feeling intensely lonely and finding yourself sitting around a boardroom table, knowing no one and being bored out of your mind.
This isn’t to say I haven’t enjoyed my volunteer activities. Some—like volunteering at a craft fair—have been fun. But they’ve been fun despite my loneliness. They’ve been fun in themselves. I haven’t stopped volunteering. What I’ve done is stopped volunteering as a way to try to “end” my loneliness. I now only do things that I want to do, with my loneliness not entering into the equation one way or another.
I find that volunteering without trying to “end” or “cure” my loneliness takes a lot of weight off the volunteer activity. I’m not asking the volunteer work to do more than it’s capable of, and that leaves me feeling less stressed, and makes the volunteer activity more enjoyable.
One of the things that people who say “volunteer!” don’t realize is that volunteering is not always so simple. A lot of non-profits are massively understaffed, and they don’t have time to respond to volunteer requests. Other organizations, such as animal shelters, might have long waiting periods before volutneer work can begin. Or you might go through an entire application process and then never hear back from the organization you hoped to join.
Not all volunteer efforts will turn out this way, of course. It’s possible to call up a food bank, offer to help, and be bagging groceries four days later. But we need to recognize, since people keep crying “volunteer!,” is that it’s often not as easy to do as it sounds.
The next time you’re lonely, and someone tells you to volunteer, ask them if they volunteer. Ask them how many places they applied before they found a good volunteer position; ask them how many forms they filled out, how many calls they didn’t have returned, how many times they were told that “an opening” would become available and it never did.
If a nonlonely person can answer these questions, and point you towards an organization that’s organized, taking volunteers, and has clear volunteer roles and expectations set out, then try it. But bear in mind that “volunteering” is often not as simple as the nonlonely make it out to be.
A note to buttress what I just said, about volunteering not being as straight-forward as people make it out to be. Earlier this year, feeling lonely, I signed up with an agency that I won’t name. I met with a volunteer coordinator for a half an hour, explaining why I wanted to volunteer (I didn’t name loneliness). I provided references. I then attended a volunteer training session for 45 mind-numbing minutes. And then….nothing!
This doesn’t mean the organization is a bad one. It’s actually a really good one. But if I’d embarked on that whole process as a way of “ending” or “curing” my loneliness, I’d be left feeling pretty awful right now.
Oh, my God. This is the single worst piece of advice I see floating around on the Internet. The basic idea is, “End your loneliness by helping someone more lonely than you! Visit a housebound senior!” There’s this slightly creepy implication that elderly people are just sitting in their homes, waiting for a lonely person to come save them.
Friendly visiting, as it’s often known, is a great idea, if you’re able to commit. Elderly people often rely on volunteer visitors as a way of combatting loneliness and social isolation. Well run programs do wonders for the elderly.
But isolated elderly people aren’t there for the convenience of the lonely. I try not to give advice on this site, but I feel compelled to give it now: ONLY volunteer with as a friendly visitor if you want to help an elderly person combat social isolation. Do NOT do it as a way of ending your loneliness. Friendly visiting isn’t about you (no matter how nice you are). It’s about people who are enormously vulnerable, and whose welfare has to come first.
Studies show that isolated elderly people actually do worse if a friendly visitor shows up for, say, three months, and then disappears. Friendly visiting is a much bigger commitment than the websites offering “advice” make it out to be. If you really care about social isolation and the elderly, and if there’s a seniors’ advocacy center in your city, then think about it. But be ready to commit.