Health: Young people aren't volunteering as much. But it's not for the reasons you think

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Volunteer Fergus Collins says © Provided by ABC News Volunteer Fergus Collins says "it's nice to play even a small role in someone's twilight years". (ABC RN: Teresa Tan)

Volunteering is one of those activities that many of us know we should do.

It's crucial to the operation of many charities and community groups; it can be a lifeline for the most disadvantaged members of our society; and — according to numerous studies — it actually boosts the health, happiness and life satisfaction levels of the giver, not just the recipient.

But volunteering has been on the decline, particularly among 15-24-year-olds, with difficulties fitting it around paid work or family commitments often cited as explanation.

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Sydney-based psychology student Fergus Collins bucks that trend.

"I've been told it's not that common," says the 21-year-old, who visits two elderly Australians in aged care homes each week.

"I really enjoy it. My grandma lives in Brisbane, so I don't see her that often — and I probably should call more — but I've always enjoyed talking to her … and it feels similar to that."

Fergus says he grew up with a "devout Catholic" mum who was always contributing to her community, through programs like Meals on Wheels and visiting those in need. So his decision to volunteer was an easy one.

The actual process of signing up? Not so much.

"The initial onboarding was a bit of a barrier," Fergus says.

"I was unclear [on where] to find the exact sign-up page, and once I did, it took a few months for the organisation to get back to me."

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Once "in", Fergus took a realistic approach to how (and where) he volunteers.

"I don't travel more than 10 minutes to do this. And that's not because I'm not so willing to … but I've got study and work [to consider]," he says.

"I didn't expect the world from myself … I took a modest approach, kind of kept things local. It's better to do that than nothing."

From TV screens to church halls

The benefits of intergenerational volunteering programs have come into focus in the last few years.

This is thanks — in part — to the ABC TV series Old People's Home for 4 Year Olds, a social experiment which brought together elderly people in a retirement community and four-year-olds.

Craig Segaert, rector at St Nicolas' Anglican Church in Sydney, says the show was a catalyst for his community to start a similar program of their own.

"My wife and I were watching the first series … In the last episode, they were showing the old people, and the changes that [program] had made for them," he recalls.

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"With tears in our eyes, we looked at each other and said, 'Can't we do something like that in our preschool and church?'"

After a chance encounter with a leading scholar in the field, Segaert was introduced to Ruth Peters, a researcher in dementia and cognitive decline with the University of New South Wales.

"The community in Coogee reached out to me as a scientist and said, 'We've seen the TV show, we think it's brilliant. Can you tell us what's the best way to do [an intergenerational program] and make sure that there's a benefit?" Dr Peters explains.

After discovering there was limited scientific literature on the benefits of such programs, Dr Peters worked with the community — including "physicians, preschool educators, nurses, child psychologists, qualitative researchers, and health professionals" — to design a pilot.

"We brought together local older adults with local preschool members, and we've had such a fantastic response from them," Dr Peters says.

"We were thinking they might [fill] a surrogate grandparent or surrogate grandchild role. Actually, what happened was that people reported making friends with a different generation."

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Having received $3.7 million in funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, Dr Peters and her team are expanding the study next year, rolling it out in up to 40 sites over the next two years.

"The main outcome we're looking at in the older adults is frailty — so a lack of resilience," she explains.

"Frailty is a strong predictor of transition to aged care and comorbidity. So, if we can try to help reduce frailty, improve mood and physical abilities, we might be able to help older adults stay independent and connected for that little bit longer."

Competing concerns

For 18-year-old Olivia Hester, friendship is what she has gained from volunteering with a woman 66 years her senior.

"I think we have a lot in common," says the Year 12 student.

"She has travelled the world, she's been a teacher for so many years, and she's had all these amazing experiences. And those are things that I want to do."

Olivia started volunteering in high school through the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, a youth program that sees young people set objectives in the areas of volunteering, physical activities, and skill-based learning.

Wanting her volunteering contribution to feel "meaningful", Olivia signed up to the Community Visitors Scheme, which paired her up with a new resident at a St Joseph's Aged Care Catholic Healthcare facility in Sydney.

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"When I started volunteering, it was kind of in the middle of COVID, but I could go in and physically visit the ladies," Olivia recalls.

"It became a real highlight of my week, because it was a time where I wasn't thinking about myself, or the stresses of school or friends or family. I was just going in there, spending an hour getting to know someone and chatting.

"I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it."

Olivia says most of the students she knows who also volunteer do it as part of the Duke of Edinburgh's Awards, or another social justice-based honours program at her school.

"I don't know if it's [that] we're a more self-centred generation … But, in my experience, young people aren't going to really volunteer unless there is a reason for it," she says, listing study and sports and some of the competing focusses for teens.

But Olivia adds that many of her friends and schoolmates are heavily involved in environmental activism.

"Climate change and climate action, it's an issue for our future. It's more on our radar [than isolation in aged care homes]."

Not like their grandparents

The 2021 census cited a 19 per cent drop in volunteering numbers since 2016. According to 2020 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the decline was most significant amongst the 15-24 age group.

Melanie Oppenheimer, author of Volunteering: Why we can't survive without it and an honorary history professor at the Australian National University, says there has been a "profound shift" in how younger generations contribute to society.

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"They're not joining the organisations that our grandparents or great-grandparents established. They're not interested in that," she explained recently on ABC RN's God Forbid.

"We don't wear the same clothes as our grandparents, so why should we volunteer in the same organisations or in the same way?"

But Professor Oppenheimer says that doesn't young people aren't engaged in the issues facing their community.

"I think the younger generations are probably more civic minded than anyone," she says.

"However … the way that they're engaging or networking happens to be online or in Facebook groups. So, they will join a movement, but it's in a different way."

For Fergus, online activism shouldn't be a replacement for in-person volunteering, but another avenue to contribute.

After all, he says, spending one hour a week with someone — such as an elderly Australian — can make a world of difference.

"They're not having as many of those genuine social interactions as they might like or as they would have had, you know, when they were younger," he says.

"I've realised that it requires very little effort from you — [as a volunteer] — to create a big reaction from the person you're visiting.

"Once I started doing it, I was like, 'Damn, why would you not do this?'"

Old People's Home for Teenagers airs Tuesdays at 8.30pm on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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