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Senior Volunteering Abroad
When You're Young at Heart

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Updated 23 May 2018 - In some countries, more than 50% of women say they would like to get involved in senior volunteering after their formal working lives are over.

While there are plenty of volunteer opportunities close to home, many women are looking to volunteer overseas.

Age no longer determines everything we do, and giving a bit of ourselves while we travel is relatively simple.

How realistic is it to volunteer abroad over 50?

Extremely realistic. In fact, a growing number of volunteer schemes are removing the upper age limits (though they maintain the lower age limits of 18 or 21).

As long as you're healthy – and yes, that does seem to be a requirement in most if not all cases – finding volunteer work in your 60s, 70s and beyond is becoming easier every day.

Senior volunteers as a group have different needs and aspirations than 20-year-olds, so if you're an aspiring volunteer, you should keep these in mind when you search for your placement.

Here are some of the questions you should be asking yourself before you volunteer abroad

  • How strenuous is the work? Will I be able to handle it? If it involves carrying heavy loads or climbing steep hills, make sure you've in great physical shape.
  • Can I easily get medical care? Bones break and emergencies arise. You should be able to get to a medical facility in reasonable time.
  • How well am I insured? If you don't have private medical or travel insurance, get some. If your health is less than optimal, you may have to rely on your own national health insurance, or on the project's insurance if it provides it. Accidents or repatriation can be excruciatingly expensive so I wouldn't consider a volunteering stint without some solid insurance (these companies insure you if you're over 65).
  • How will my skills be used as an international volunteer? After a lifetime of work you may have developed some pretty extraordinary skills. While most people can wield a hammer, not everyone can build a website, design a road or wire a house for electricity. See if you can match your life of experience with local needs.
  • What are my goals at this stage of life? Your goals should match your posting. If you've developed a strong commitment to the environment, make sure your organization is green. Do you want to learn a new skill? Work with young people? Make new friends? Leave a legacy? Feel productive? These should all be foremost in your thinking.
  • What challenges am I facing and how can they be overcome? Do you have a physical or mental disability, phobias, allergies, financial issues or other challenges? Make sure you identify them early on and resolve them.
  • Can I talk to someone? Find someone who has volunteered in your scheme through the organization. Don't even think of losing yourself somewhere in the world without first speaking to a returning senior volunteer. What the brochures and websites say may have little bearing on conditions on the ground.
  • How does my family feel about it? If they're supportive, that's great. All you'll have to worry about is keeping in touch while you're away. If not, you'll have to start working on them soon - senior volunteering has its own challenges and you don't need to carry guilt from home. Try to resolve issues before you go, and bring your family into your decision as early as you can.

Volunteering is usually a two-step process: first, the idea appears, and then something triggers the action. This can be anything - a returning friend, a request from someone, information from another source.

How to volunteer over 50: step-by-step guide to becoming a senior volunteer

Once you’ve decided to take the plunge and find a place that provides opportunities for volunteering abroad for older adults, you need to determine what kind of volunteering you want to do, where you want to go, how long you can go, and how much money you can spend. You also need to carefully consider which organization to join forces with: One whose volunteer travel programs are truly helping the people, communities or causes that are dear to you, and one that is ethical.

  • What exactly do you want to do? Some women long to work with other women, others want to save the rainforests, and still others want to preserve some nearly-forgotten artifact of history. Decide what is most important to you and make that your starting point -- volunteering for a cause you don’t believe in or aren’t passionate about won’t help anyone.
  • Where do you want to go? This is a travel site, after all. If part of your desire to volunteer overseas is to see more of the world, then make sure you are going to a country that you want to visit or experience more fully. (But remember, this is volunteer work, not a vacation).
  • How long are you going? Short-term volunteer projects, or “voluntourism,” have become more and more popular over the years. Many outfits send volunteers for a week, 10 days or two weeks to serve in the field. While I won’t make a blanket judgement that there is no use for these kinds of trips, I do highly recommend volunteering for longer stretches of time because sometimes short-term missions can do more harm than good -- taking away jobs from locals, coming at a high cost to host organizations and sometimes causing long-term grief to children in poverty who form bonds with volunteers only to watch them leave. The good news is that as a senior, you probably have skills that many voluntourists -- college grads taking a gap year -- haven’t had the opportunity to develop. So you can step into a role for a month and do an excellent job from the get-go. However, the longer you volunteer, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to make the lasting difference you want to make without the unintended consequences.
  • How much can you spend? While it’s free to volunteer for organizations like the United Nations and IESC, there are many, many programs that ask you to pay for your trip. Some of these expenses make sense: If the organization is providing shelter, food, and transportation around town, you don’t want to be a financial burden. But at the same time, you want to know where/what your money is going to -- so ask! But also ask yourself how much money you have to volunteer, and at what point you’d be better off making a donation to the organization rather than volunteering your time. 

The answers to those questions should help you narrow down your options. If you want to save sea turtles for 6 months off the coast of Mexico and don’t have much money saved up, you know you have a better idea of what you’re looking for.

The next step, is determining the ethical standards of the programs and organizations that meet your criteria.

Choosing a volunteer organization

First things first, I want to direct you to two great resources: this article by Kirsty Henderson and this book by Shannon O’Donnell. Both of these go in to far greater detail than I can in this article about things to consider and how one should go about vetting volunteer organizations.

Shannon's book is especially interesting. She has travelled and volunteered all over the world, and the book goes into detail about the questions you need to ask yourself and the organization before volunteering anywhere.

Besides her book, she’s also worked diligently to create a list of sustainable, grassroots volunteer organizations across the globe. If you’re looking for a place to start your search, her directory is a gem. She takes the evaluation questions from her books and puts them into practise choosing which organizations get a spot on her website.

In addition to these resources, here are some things to consider and to ask your organization prior to committing to travel with them:

  1. Where is the money going? How much of my fee goes to the people in need?
  2. Is the work I’m doing taking a job away from a local? Why have you not hired a local to do this work? 
  3. What’s the long-term plan and vision in this area? 
  4. Do you have statistics on how you’ve helped/improved this area or community since your arrival? 
  5. Where will I be staying? What should I wear or bring (or not wear/not bring)? 
  6. How can I be sensitive to the culture in this area? 
  7. Can I talk to a current or previous volunteer?
  8. What does a typical day in the life of a volunteer look like?

Your main goal is to make sure that your volunteer efforts are needed, aren’t taking away jobs from locals or depleting community resources, and that the organization has a long-term plan and isn’t simply in it for money.

Evaluate your own priorities as well: It’s ok to feel good about volunteering, but if the only reason you are doing it is to fill your Facebook feed with good deeds, you might want to think twice.

For more information about the ethics of voluntourism and volunteering abroad in general, check out these resources.

Common mistakes volunteers make

Besides volunteering for the wrong reasons, volunteers can easily make mistakes during their travels. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid:

  • Thinking too highly of yourself, your skills, or your impact. Yes, you are doing the world some good in volunteering, and yes, you have valuable skills to offer. But going into a volunteer situation as the “savior” for these people isn’t a good mindset. It prevents you from opening yourself up to learning from the people you meet and allowing them to change you. And it can make you inflexible and arrogant where flexibility and humility is most needed.
  • Doing things you aren’t qualified to do. Think teaching, or performing medical procedures. Make sure you are going abroad and actually using your skillset. Offering subpar performance simply means someone will have to pick up the pieces or repair your mistakes after you leave.
  • Not asking enough questions (or the right questions). Again, this is where O’Donnell’s book comes in. You should be interviewing the agency as much as -- or more than -- they are interviewing you. Make sure you know exactly how you are helping and what’s expected of you.
  • Trying to help orphans and children. There’s oodles of research that children-based short-term (and sometimes long-term) relief efforts do more harm than good. Read more about volunteering with children.
  • Not anticipating problems. Because you are travelling, you might be expecting a problem-free vacation. While tour companies promote volunteer vacations for seniors, if you’re truly going to give of yourself and help others, you can’t expect perfection -- especially in underprivileged communities. Don’t expect electricity or running water. Don’t anticipate that transportation will run smoothly and on-time. Also, make sure you have travel insurance (yes, there are plans for seniors out there), because you never know what will happen.
  • Having a vacation mindset. Like the point above, remember why you are interested in volunteering in the first place. If you want to travel to enjoy the world, then do it -- there’s nothing wrong with that! But if you’re volunteering because you want to see the sites without paying a fortune to do so, then you don’t have the right mentality. Volunteering needs to be the priority.
  • Bringing/sending goods. You don’t want to bring anything with you that you don’t need and that your community doesn’t need. If the organization gives you a list of things they could use, then by all means pack them. But if not, don’t. Your goal is to meet actual needs and support the community and cause you are volunteering for. The locals and the organization know better than you do what they need.

Senior volunteer opportunities

This is just a sampling of volunteer opportunities for seniors across the globe but you'll have to do your own research to find the most suitable for you, now that you know what to ask. There are thousands of charitable organizations, many of which are becoming increasingly open to over 50s volunteering overseas.

These are resources to help you find programs and reviews

Volunteer Abroad
This is a great resource to help you get started as you search for volunteering opportunities for older adults. It won’t ask the hard questions regarding ethical standards or where the money goes, but you can search for volunteer opportunities by country, cause and length of trip. From there, you can evaluate each match. The website also includes reviews of programs, which can be helpful as you vet agencies.

Go Overseas
This platform isn’t specific to volunteer programs (it includes programs for teaching abroad, for example), but it allows you to talk to people who have taken similar trips with organizations, and it includes real reviews from travellers about organizations, which helps you in the vetting process. Simply search by project type, location and length of trip and see what comes up!

Giving Way
Search by country and activity (arts, conservation, disaster relief, etc.) and find grassroots non-profits looking for volunteers across the globe. There are no middlemen and no agencies involved and you talk directly to the charity that needs help. They also don’t allow any organizations running orphanages, which they explain in detail here.

Grassroots Volunteering
This database is run by Shannon O’Donnell, who wrote the book I recommended above. She personally funds the page and vets the organizations looking for volunteers. These are grassroots charities in need of your help and you can search for opportunities based on region, country, duration, type and cost. Besides helping charities, the database also includes small businesses that you can choose to support.

Transitions Abroad
Q&A on Senior Female Travel

And if these resources aren't enough, you can check your churches and other places of worship for faith based volunteering opportunities, many of which have volunteering opportunities for retired women.

These senior volunteer programs may place you free of charge

Archaeological Institute of America
If archeology is something you’ve always wanted to delve into, this database can help you find volunteer opportunities across the globe. Search by location and keyword to see what you can dig up.

United Nations Volunteers
If you want to be a long-term volunteer and have a college degree and professional work experience, the United Nations is an excellent way to get involved in volunteer work. You can volunteer abroad and in your home country. - for long-term, skilled volunteers

Peace Corps
If you’re a United States citizen, you can volunteer for the Peace Corps at any age. Service contracts last from three months to two years and you can choose your country, work type and departure dates. They have an entire page regarding voluntary work abroad for over 50s you can see here.

CESO
If you’re a Canadian citizen or permanent resident who is a senior-level professional, CESO can place you in positions both internationally and locally for anywhere from two days to four weeks where you’ll use your professional expertise to help others.

These organizations will ask you to contribute financially to your placement

Projects Abroad
Skilled retirees from the United Kingdom can work in placements specific to their professional expertise, such as journalism, micro-finance, and business. These trips can be as short as two weeks long, although some are much longer. They have 443 reviews on TrustPilot, with excellent reviews.

International Volunteer Headquarters
Seniors are welcome to volunteer their time on various projects around the world for one week to 24 weeks, and can volunteer for any IVHQ project, instead of needing to choose opportunities labelled “volunteer abroad for adults”. The company boasts low fees, such as $180 for one week of serving. You can see which programs they recommend for seniors here. TrustPilot also gives them an excellent score.

Global Service Corps
This is a non-profit for seniors wanting to volunteer in Cambodia. You can select a program from their list: Opportunities include teaching English, community development and global public health. There aren’t many reviews about them online, but those I found are positive.

Open Minded Projects
If you want to serve in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Nepal, Open Minded Projects has volunteer opportunities for retirees doing everything from marine conservation to helping Burma migrants get an education. Costs are under $200/week and reviews on Go Overseas are overwhelmingly positive.

Global Volunteers
If you’re looking for a chance to volunteer with people of all age groups, Global Volunteers has great opportunities to join the generations in China, the Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Portugal, St Lucia, Tanzania, USA (Montana and West Virginia) and Vietnam. Projects include gardening, food production, parent workshops, senior care and much more. On Go Overseas, Global Volunteers has more than 100 positive reviews.

GVI
GVI offers more than 150 volunteer projects in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe and Australasia in disciplines including wildlife conservation, animal care, health care and teaching. You could work on a Woman’s Empowerment Project in Laos, or a HealthCare project in South Africa. GVI has more than 1,400 reviews on Go Abroad and a 9.8 star rating.

A Broader View
This organization takes anyone over the age of 17 who is physically able to volunteer and accepts volunteers from around the globe. Work to support women, prevent HIV/AIDS, care for animal life and so much more. They have excellent reviews on Go Overseas.

Volunteering Solutions
Volunteers of any age can serve in Asia, South America, Africa, Australia and the Pacific on projects ranging from women’s empowerment to medical volunteering to sports coaching. The organization has great reviews across the internet and offers plenty of flexibility in choosing location, dates and focus of volunteer work.

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