The past couple of years have taken a toll on our mental health, with older people hit particularly hard by pandemic restrictions and isolation. People have been confined to their homes for extended times, with shopping and other activities limited; and many social and community groups having closed or gone virtual. It’s not surprising, then, that older people have experienced much higher rates of mental health issues as a result of Covid-19. Research has shown that the mental wellbeing and quality of life of older Australians were much lower when compared to pre-pandemic levels.
As restrictions ease and we begin to navigate the “new normal”, it’s clear that reconnecting with the community and increasing socialisation are both critical to restoring mental wellbeing. Volunteering has also been identified as having significant benefits for mental health. It can reduce social isolation and loneliness and give people a sense of purpose. It’s also a way for older people to act as role models to younger generations.
Volunteering in community sports brings multiple benefits – from socialisation, to being outdoors and participating in physical exercise – all of which boost mental wellbeing. Sport brings people together, builds a sense of belonging, and creates vibrant and stimulating communities. The Clearinghouse for Sport notes that older volunteers, in particular, may experience less depression and greater life satisfaction than non-volunteers. It identifies a “volunteering threshold” of one to two hours per week, or 40 to 100 hours per year, to derive health benefits.
A survey by the South Australian government also found that regular volunteers reported higher social capital measures than people who didn’t volunteer, or did so only once. Four out of five (80 per cent) regular volunteers said they identified with the community (compared with only 58 per cent of those who didn’t volunteer), and 73 per cent believed the local community would come together to solve serious problems (vs 59 per cent).
Volunteering also leads to people participating in sport themselves, as well as trying new types of physical activity. ABS data found that 87 per cent of those who volunteered their time and services to an organisation in the 12 months prior to the survey also participated in sport or physical recreation in the same time period, compared to a much lower participation rate of 67 per cent for non-volunteers.
The positive impact of physical exercise on mental wellbeing is well established, and – critically in the Covid-19 era – exercise is increasingly shown to strengthen the immune system in older people. A study of long-distance cyclists, some in their eighties, found they had the immune system of 20-year-olds. Recent studies indicate that regular physical activity is associated with a reduced risk for Covid-19.
A review of 10,800 studies identified three key ways that volunteering can reduce loneliness and improve wellbeing, including:
But it also found that “good outcomes are dependent on the volunteer experience: especially whether the volunteer feels appreciated and supported“. If resources for volunteering are lacking, and volunteers aren’t given appropriate preparation and guidance, they can feel undervalued and realise only limited benefits.
Putting your hand up to help out with a sports team, and suddenly being dumped with mountains of paperwork and/or having to constantly chase members for subscriptions and fees is anything but fun. In fact, it’s more likely to increase stress. US figures show that most competitive youth sports programs spend over 40 hours every season collecting money and still end the season with up to 10 per cent unpaid dues.
The good news is that technology is making it much easier to help organise and participate in sports clubs. Payments can be made electronically instead of a pile of notes and change in a cashbox. These days many people don’t carry cash and find it more convenient to make payments online. Reminders can be automated, removing the stress and awkwardness of person-to-person interactions.
Smart sports apps also help when mobility or travel restrictions are an issue. Australians of all ages have honed their tech skills during the pandemic, with mobile device use surging. Using a smartphone or tablet to log players in, arrange training and matches is much more efficient than standing around with a clipboard and trying to match availability with players and teams as well as schedule the availability of volunteers themselves.
Admin also becomes much more efficient and less labour-intensive. Instead of vast piles of paper and logbooks bursting out of the clubroom cupboard, everything is digitised and accessible to all club officials and players. Members can compare and sync timetables and send out group messages if they can’t make a session.
Sports volunteering is a highly accessible and effective strategy to boost mental wellbeing in older people, with the potential for wider physical health benefits. And thanks to a new generation of apps and devices, it has never been easier to participate.