Nanette Bjerring Fournier is a Research Assistant at Copenhagen Center for Health Research in the Humanities (CoRe). Nanette has a master in public health science (cand.scient.san.publ) from the University of Copenhagen, and she has previously done research on loneliness, social relations and initiatives for older people, e.g. a Danish befriending scheme/senior companion programme.
Turning the volunteer-recipient relation upside down: When frail older people become volunteers in Denmark
In the realm of the Danish welfare state, a range of initiatives have emerged in recent years aiming to counteract social exclusion and combat ageism. Central to these initiatives is the call for older people to engage in volunteer work, thereby empowering them through the involvement in new social relations and activating their many resources. Indeed, different studies point to a high range of volunteering amongst people 65+ (40-45% of the age group). However, most initiatives aiming to involve older people target people in the third age, while nursing home residents and home care recipients are usually perceived as too frail to become volunteers.
Through the initiative Elderlearn, frail older people engage in volunteer work in their own residence. Elderlearn connects nursing home residents and home care recipients with foreigners learning the Danish language. The foreigners visit the older volunteers for conversations in Danish on a weekly basis. Hereby, Elderlearn aspires to combat loneliness by enabling frail older people to help others. This paper explores Elderlearn’s significance for the social lives of older volunteers. Based on qualitative interviews (n=20) and participant observations (n=16) with and amongst older volunteers and foreigners learning Danish, we explore what constitutes good social relations between them, and how these relations are created.
Typically, initiatives combatting loneliness among older people contain a unidirectional understanding of who is able to help whom. In the present case, the relation is turned upside down and it is the older volunteer who helps the foreigner to practice Danish. In this context, we explore perceived barriers and possibilities in the older volunteers’ ability to contribute. Good social relations are not solely based on the support an individual receives but also on the support the individual can provide for others. We show how frail older people’s experiences and competencies can be activated through volunteer work, benefitting themselves and the society they are continuously a part of.