Safe ways for seniors to volunteer


Hank Mull rolls a cart of meals toward his car to begin his delivery route for the Gunnison Senior Center Meals Program on May 6. He has been doing this volunteer work for the past nine years.

Charitable organizations rely on the efforts of volunteers to meet their missions every day. People of all ages can volunteer, and a great number of volunteers are seniors. 

A 2016 survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that nearly one-quarter of American volunteers are age 65 and over. That was never more apparent than during the pandemic. Many nonprofit organizations were suddenly forced to confront a volunteer shortage due to the adoption of social distancing guidelines that were designed to keep vulnerable populations, such as seniors, as safe as possible. One study from Fidelity Charitable found that two out of three volunteers decreased or stopped contributing time during the pandemic.

Gunnison may be an exception to such national statistics, however. Arden Anderson, who served as volunteer coordinator for Gunnison County’s pandemic response team, did not have data for exactly how much volunteering was going on the valley before COVID arrived, but his general impression was that volunteering during the pandemic — and, specifically, in direct response to the pandemic — was robust.

“During COVID, I was … frankly blown away by the response that we got to a request to volunteer during the pandemic,” Anderson said. “I got about — at its height — about 760 people on my volunteer list willing to volunteer. That’s more than five percent of the adult population of the valley. I think you’d have a hard time finding that kind of response anywhere else in the country.” He estimated that 760 volunteers translated to about 28,000 hours of volunteer time.

Anderson attributed this high rate of volunteer participation in Gunnison County to, in part, its being a small and relatively rural county.

“The folks in Gunnison County tend to recognize that there are a lot of things that we just don’t have the money to do with paid staff and that if we want things to get done, sometimes we’ve got to put in some sweat equity to get it done.”

Anderson’s general impression was also that seniors made up a large portion of Gunnison’s pandemic-response volunteers.

“I’m guessing a third or so of those folks were over 60 and thus at higher risk for COVID.”

The rollout of various COVID vaccines has allowed vaccinated individuals to return to a certain degree of pre-pandemic normalcy. However, the threat posed by strains of the virus like the Delta variant has made some seniors apprehensive about returning to volunteering. Though each individual should consider various factors before returning to volunteering during the pandemic, the following are some options seniors can consider as they aim to safely pitch in once again. 

• Look for contactless opportunities. Interactions with the people they help and work alongside is what drives many volunteers to lend a helping hand. That’s especially so for seniors whose children have grown up and moved out. In-person interactions may be too risky during the pandemic, but seniors can still volunteer via contactless opportunities. 

For example, seniors who work with organizations such as Gunnison Country Food Pantry and the Gunnison Senior Center can, in lieu of delivering meals by hand, help with the delivery of prepackaged meals outside recipients’ residences. In addition, Gunnison, an outdoor recreation tourist destination, offers many volunteer opportunities that involve outdoor-only experiences, such as trail and park maintenance, experiences widely understood as safer during the pandemic. 

• Pitch in with fundraising. A report from Giving USA released in 2021 revealed that Americans gave more to charity in 2020 than in 2019. That increase came in spite of an economic downturn that saw millions of people lose their jobs or take pay cuts as companies scrambled to deal with lost revenue related to the pandemic. Though giving might have increased in 2020, many nonprofit organizations, including local community theaters, likely suffered due to cancellations and audience restrictions. As a result, many local nonprofit organizations are in need of financial support. Seniors who want to pitch in but stay safe can volunteer to help local organizations raise funds. Seniors can participate in fundraising efforts from the comforts of their own homes. 

• Offer professional expertise. Many seniors retired after spending decades mastering their crafts, and that experience can be an invaluable resource to local nonprofit organizations. Seniors can offer professional advice and mentor youths remotely via apps like Zoom without putting their physical health at risk. 

Seniors concerned for their safety can still lend a hand by volunteering with their favorite nonprofit organizations. 

Local resources: Gunnison Valley Volunteers, gunnisonvalleyvolunteers.com; Gunnison Senior Center, 200 E. Spencer Avenue, 970.641.8272; Retired Senior Volunteer Program (contact: RSVP Coordinator Pat Lazerus, 719.239.1364, plazerus@region10.net)

(Mara Taylor-Heine can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or mara@gunnisontimes.com.)

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