Top tips for volunteering overseas for Silver Travellers

There are now plenty of volunteer opportunities advertised as being appropriate for the over 50s.

Beware! This may just disguise the fact that the programme is, and was originally, aimed at ‘gappers’. How can you find out if the volunteer programme you’re looking at really is suitable for grown ups and you won’t be back in a dorm with students?

Here are my top tips

  • Watch out for repeated use of marketing phrases that attract young people – you know the kind of thing: awesome, adventure, try your hand at, broaden your horizons, add to your CV, have the time of your life, etc. 
  • Watch out for dorm style sleeping arrangements and volunteer houses. 
  • Does the project specify the need for skills and/or experience? If not, you’re more likely to encounter young GAP volunteers. 
  • Don’t rely on age group guidelines where you can choose over 50 or retirement categories. It’s probably just a tick box and isn’t necessarily helpful. I know from experience that on many sites where we promote our programmes we could tick GAP, career break and retirement for the same project. 
  • Are you expected to work a full day – GAP opportunities often expect fewer than four hours a day. 
  • Ask straight out – will there be young volunteers there and if so, how many? 
  • Ask if there will be volunteers there from more than one organisation? And if so, will you be told? 
  • Are there set departure dates and minimum volunteer numbers? And if so, how many? 
  • And, importantly, can you talk with some previous over 50s volunteers?

people & places - Responsible Tourism & Volunteering In some cases, a combination of 20 somethings and 50 somethings works really well – a teaching student and experienced teacher for example – where their skills and abilities are complementary BUT you should know who you will be working with in advance – you should be allowed to decide if working with young volunteers is what you want.

By asking clever questions, you will be able to make informed decisions!

A personal warning! On my first volunteer experience when I was in my late 40’s, it didn’t even cross my mind to find out the ages of any other volunteers who may be there working on other projects nearby. I ended up being surrogate parent, agony aunt, arbiter, nurse and counselor – homesickness, sulks, crushes, euphoria, deep depressions, alcoholic dehydration, medical emergency. I got em all – not what I’d signed up for!

So, the bottom line? Make your own preferences clear from the outset. You may be perfectly happy to live and work with a few youngsters – it may be that you absolutely, definitely won’t!  If the organisation you are talking to can’t provide you with the answers – BEWARE!

You’ll be spending your own money to volunteer, so your preferences are important.

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Sallie Grayson

Programme director at People and Places

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