The practice of combining volunteer service with travel dramatically expanded in popularity and accessibility during the last decades of the 20th century, along with the expansion of travel horizons in general. While longer term service abroad—six months, a year or more—has appealed mainly to the young, who often perceive it as a period of "finding or proving oneself" or building credentials and experience to strengthen a career direction, older people have quite a different agenda. Identifying and serving this agenda has revolutionized academic research timetables around the world, allowed charitable organizations and non-profits to move projects and services from dreams to reality and created an army of able-bodied individuals who are eager to share their experience of a lifetime as well as their considerable physical energy, enthusiasm, and—very importantly—their financial support for a good cause.
As outlined in the "Volunteer Vacations" chapter of my guidebook, Travel Unlimited: Uncommon Adventures for the Mature Traveler, older people generally sign up for volunteer service for any of three good reasons, sometimes for all combined:
Unlike their younger counterparts, these volunteer recruits rarely want to be away from home for long blocks of time, preferring one week to a month, though they may take two or three different volunteer vacations spread over the course of a year. Most are well educated, combining a high degree of task-oriented motivation with a lot of patience and attention to detail. Though some people will plan and carry out their volunteer travel independently, they more often like the camaraderie, security, and orderliness of a small-group experience. About 65 percent to 70 percent of older volunteer vacationers are women.
Young and Old Together
Many older people underscore the value of working side by side with people of different ages to achieve a common goal. However, they do like to know that the project is proven senior-friendly, with some others in their age bracket as a normal part of the mix. For many, intergenerational conversations and shared adventures are a refreshing change in societies where communications between young and old are often artificial and uncomfortable. Carefully selected volunteer vacations can establish common ground and a lifelong bond between family members of different ages, especially grandparents and grandchildren.
The Birth of Voluntourism
Expanding and creatively diversifying over the past 20 years, short-term volunteer vacations embrace the interests and harness the abilities of adults at different stages of their lives, even into their 80s. Participants not only donate their time and energy, but financially support their own presence on the project, and top it up with an added contribution to the program.
What I like to call "voluntourism" annually attracts hundreds of thousands of older adults to become part of an expanded short-term labor force within their own countries and abroad while paying to work hard on their vacations. Whether teaching English to eager classes of Chinese or Guatemalan students, tracking orangutans in Borneo’s rainforests, unearthing dinosaur bones or archaeological ruins, building concrete block houses in impoverished regions, sailing out to sea to conduct marine mammal research, or caring for children at an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, an increasing number of retired and retiring people have caught the voluntourism bug.
Volunteer vacations offer good value to those on a tight budget because they are priced to reflect living conditions and meal delivery at a lower expectation level than traditional vacations. Dormitory-style or shared accommodation with shared bathrooms, billeting in local homes, different levels of camping, as well as cafeteria- or family-style food preparation and delivery may all be part of a particular project. Some may offer a surprising level of privacy and physical comfort—with air conditioning, private rooms, and gourmet chefs in the kitchen. Some provide educational lectures and entertainment in the evening, or organized group excursions to explore surrounding areas on days off.
Read the fine print with a discerning eye and an adventurous spirit and ask lots of questions of program organizers and previous recruits before making a decision. But don’t hesitate long—spaces fill quickly and last minute cancellations are rare.
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