There’s a saying in English, “Gone to the wall”, which means something has failed and is done for, exhausted, useless and depleted. The origins of the phrase are surprising. In medieval times, seats in churches were a luxury afforded only to kings, queens, lords and ladies. For the common man or woman; the long, Latin services had to be endured standing up in all weathers. Older members of the community were allowed to stand closest to the church walls, allowing them to lean against the stonework if the burden of standing became too much.
Thankfully, older members of today’s society are not considered to have gone to the wall. Older people are at the very heart of their communities – on the committees of GAA clubs, Tidy Towns, historical societies, drama groups, and every other activity that needs volunteer contributions.
Older people who volunteer are happier, healthier and enjoy a better quality of life than their peers who don’t. A 2012 study showed that members of Active Retirement Ireland had better levels of self-reported health and were more satisfied with life than non-members. The physical activity involved in certain forms of community involvement – such as Tidy Towns, Go-For-Life exercises or playing bowls – can be good for your health at any age, but it’s especially beneficial to older people. Studies in the USA, UK and Germany have all found that those older people who are engaged with their communities have a lower mortality rate than those who do not, even when considering factors like the health of the participants. Volunteering has also been shown to lessen symptoms of chronic pain or heart disease.
The real payoff in getting involved, though, is to be found in the community itself. A key risk factor for depression, dementia and other mental health concerns is social isolation. Volunteering keeps you in regular contact with others, and helps you develop a solid social network; which in turn protects you against stress and depression when you’re going through tough times. Working with animals has also been shown to improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety.
One of the best ways to make new friends is to join a community group. Community involvement is a great way to meet new people, especially if you are new to an area or if you have recently retired and are spending more time at home. You can also strengthen existing relationships by sharing an activity together.
So, you can see how good is to get involved, but where do you start?
You will have a far more enjoyable experience if you take a little time to find opportunities in your community that match your own interests. Start by thinking about why you want to volunteer and what you would enjoy doing most. Volunteer opportunities that you find interesting are most likely to be fun and fulfilling for you. It’s also important to take into account your own capacity. Don’t overexert yourself, either physically or with the amount of time you think can give up. It’s crucial that community involvement is ‘good craic’ for you.
Above all – take a leap. Go and get involved in your community, be it with an Active Retirement group, Tidy Towns, Toastmasters, whatever takes your interest. Whatever it is you decide to do, you’ll feel happier and healthier in retirement because of it; and you certainly won’t have “gone to the wall”.
Peter Kavanagh is Head of Communications and Public Affairs for Active Retirement Ireland, the country’s largest community-based older people’s organisation. Its 24,500 members take part in activities designed to enable older people to have a healthy and active retirement. Bluebird Care are proud to support Active Retirement Ireland.