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Volunteering and intergenerational connections to promote active ageing

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In Europe, an estimated 90.5 million people are over the age of 65, and this number is growing. To address the new challenges and opportunities posed by an ageing society, the European Commission launched an open consultation by publishing the Green Paper on Ageing in January. Today, Red Cross Societies from several European countries submitted their recommendations, based on their longstanding experience in caring for disadvantaged and vulnerable people of all ages, from youth to adulthood and old age. 

The Green Paper on Ageing aims to employ a holistic lifecycle approach by promoting healthy and active ageing, combined with lifelong learning. Indeed, to effectively create inclusive societies for older people, active ageing should be nurtured from early on, including by making the most of the power of volunteering and intergenerational learning. In addition, tackling the growing risks of poverty, loneliness and social isolation among older people must be prioritised. With older women often disproportionally affected, strengthening and monitoring the active inclusion of girls and women is crucial. Similarly, the impact of all these efforts will be limited without meaningful opportunities for older people to participate and highlight their needs. 

Children and young people can be important partners, but they must be better supported and enabled to engage in their communities. Training and educational opportunities should be ensured to empower young people to inform and influence their peers to lead healthy lifestyles. Volunteering is also a critical catalyst for lifelong learning and engagement across generations. For example, the French Red Cross’ “Share Ami” initiative creates intergenerational links by connecting French language students with elderly people living in France over video chat. Experiences of volunteering for and by older people foster their social inclusion and active life, influencing their health and contributing to their independence. Thus, national and regional volunteer strategies should be developed to promote structured volunteerism amongst older people and to encourage links between people of different ages.

Netherlands Red Cross volunteers check in on older people during lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. © Netherlands Red Cross, Rotterdam, June 2020. 

More needs to be done to raise awareness and combat the causes and consequences of the loneliness suffered by many older people. Feelings of loneliness and social isolation – which have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic – can have terrible consequences for people’s health and wellbeing. Enhancing older people´s opportunities to share their needs and priorities, and to contribute to developing strategies for inclusive societies, would help to address this. As would boosting measures that facilitate social interactions, such as volunteering, neighbourhood groups, or community centres. For instance, the Cyprus Red Cross Society operates a home care programme for vulnerable people which promotes social relations by organising group activities like gardening and bingo. “We strive to fight loneliness and promote mental health in the older population”, says Andia Ntoa, Clinical Psychologist of the Home Care Programme. “The design of the home care programme is influenced by positive psychology, which emphasises the bright side of human nature, the strengths and virtues of an individual, and what makes life worth living.”

A lack of financial resources is a key contributing factor to the vulnerability of older people, who often rely on their pension as their sole source of income. Particular challenges are faced by groups whose working lives have been marked by part-time jobs, temporary work, or prolonged periods of unemployment, as pensions in Europe directly correspond to contributions paid during working age. As a result, exposure to poverty is highest among people already at risk of social exclusion, including minority groups. Women are also more likely to experience poverty in old age, due to factors like discrimination in the workplace, unpaid maternity leave, or informal caring for family members. It is therefore vital to promote and fund programmes to increase the education, skills and employability of vulnerable and socially excluded groups, and to recognise key informal work through financial support later in life. Moreover, clear gender targets need to be identified and regular impact evaluations performed.

The Irish Red Cross volunteers assists the elderly with the collection and delivery of food and medication, and are always ready to lend an ear. © Irish Red Cross, 2020.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) have an array of best and innovative practices in intergenerational learning, working across the lifecycle. These tools and activities have been tried and tested at the local level and could be scaled up and adapted to different contexts. The European Commission can play an important role in disseminating best practices across Europe, with a focus on digitalisation and using digital tools to promote wellbeing and combat loneliness. For example, the “Agriweb” project implemented by the Penne branch of the Italian Red Cross in the Abruzzo region, uses digital platforms to bring generations together for mutually beneficial exchanges. “Agriweb aims to reduce youth unemployment and fight the isolation of people over the age of 65. Older people are offered digital literacy courses and encouraged to share what they learned with other older people in the region, as a form of peer-to-peer education. In return, young people receive training in the agricultural sector from older people who are experienced in this field,” describes Paola Salerno, Head of the Social Unit at the Italian Red Cross. In recognition of its outstanding contribution to the humanitarian cause, Agriweb received A “Development Award” at the General Assembly of the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in 2019.

As the number of older people in the EU continues to increase in the coming decades, the Green Paper on Ageing kickstarts an important debate on how Europe will respond to the realities of an ageing society. These demographic changes will have wide-ranging implications for the lives of individuals and society as a whole. It will be important to develop strategies and solutions together, across generations. Volunteerism, both as a form of lifelong learning and as a way to actively contribute to community life, provides a valuable tool to shape inclusive societies that work to reduce the vulnerabilities and protect the dignity of people of all ages. 

Volunteerism, both as a form of lifelong learning and as a way to actively contribute to community life, provides a valuable tool to shape inclusive societies that work to reduce the vulnerabilities and protect the dignity of people of all ages. As the number of older people in the EU continues to increase in the coming decades, the Green Paper on Ageing kickstarts an important debate on how Europe will respond to the realities of an ageing society, and the demographic changes that will have wide-ranging implications for the lives of individuals and society as a whole. It will be important to develop national and regional strategies to promote solutions together, across generations.

For media inquiries, please contact Eva Oyón on: eva.oyon@redcross.eu or +32 2 235 09 22