Opinion: Hot issue - Do older volunteers experience discrimination?

A conference to be held next month will examine whether the current focus on youth volunteering has led to an underfunding of projects involving older volunteers and discrimination against them on grounds of their age.

YES - SALLY PRICE, programme director, Volunteering in the Third Age

Ten years ago, I was the project manager for the Crisis Open Christmas.

I had to inform anyone over the age of 75 that they couldn't volunteer with us - one person had been involved for 25 years and had a wealth of experience.

Although volunteer management has become more sophisticated since then, a number of charities do believe that the age limits on insurance mean they cannot offer volunteering opportunities to people over 75. Eighteen months ago, however, the Scout Association removed its upper age limit for adult volunteers. It has since been pleased with its decision - a number of valuable volunteers, who would otherwise have been forced to retire, have been able to continue leading Scout groups.

Recent research carried out on our behalf shows that insurance is not a valid reason to refuse older people the opportunity to volunteer. There is no age limit on public liability insurance, and public accident insurance can be negotiated to cover volunteers over the age of 75.

I believe that most charities - both small and large - have no intention of being discriminatory towards volunteers because of their age. But we know that discrimination does exist.

YES - DAVID SINCLAIR, policy manager, Help the Aged

Age discrimination remains endemic in society. Last year, Help the Aged published a collection of real-life stories from older people that highlighted examples in which opportunities for active citizenship had been restricted because of age discrimination.

Although many voluntary sector organisations have moved away from upper age limits, too many older people feel volunteering opportunities are inaccessible to them. Indirect discrimination abounds, and age continues to be used as an arbitrary measure of competence to do a job.

Of course, the Government doesn't help the equality cause by continuing to insist on upper age limits for roles such as magistrates and jury service.

Not long ago, in a positive step to bring about the end of age barriers at the other end of the scale, the Charity Commission took steps to allow children's charities to have child representatives on trustee boards. Isn't it now time for it to issue guidance discouraging charities from having arbitrary upper age limits for volunteering?

NO - CAROL MULCAHY, manager, Wishes charity shop, Hammersmith, London W6

In here, I accept people of any age. Anyone who wants to volunteer with me is more than welcome and, because they are volunteering their own time, they can do as much or as little as they feel they are capable of.

I have about 20 volunteers on my books, most of whom are younger people.

However, that is largely because we get a lot of people who are doing work experience or Duke of Edinburgh Award schemes to further their own careers.

Sometimes you need the older people, who have a little bit more experience and a touch more empathy - particularly in situations such as this, where you get people coming in and telling you some very sad stories. Some younger people just can't have that degree of empathy.

My older volunteers are wonderful. I don't have to tell them what to do or how to behave, whereas younger people tend not to have the same level of knowledge or experience. The older you get, the more you appreciate other people - they have more respect and are a lot more reliable.

YES - CHRIS BALL, HR consultant, Chris Ball Consulting

An energetic retired couple I know - one was an engineer, the other a teacher - are a case in point. They wanted to do voluntary work abroad and you'd think they'd have been snapped up - but no way. They ended up travelling to Vietnam and finding work themselves.

Some employers see the effects of age on individuals and generalise it.

They worry they will have a workforce of aged duffers who can't be moved on. It's nonsense. As a population we are living longer and staying healthier.

Age should not define us.

Instead of waiting for workers to reach the slippery slope, employers should take a holistic approach to 'maintaining work ability', as it is called. The Finns are excellent at this and have Europe's most rapidly ageing workforce - their people are working longer. Health, training, flexible work, partial retirement - they all have something to offer.

We need to look at volunteers similarly. They are a valuable human resource and need to be maintained.

The great news is that voluntary work can fit well with approaches to working longer. Older workers who are 'work-able' might choose to volunteer part of the time. They deserve to be embraced.

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