Charities could benefit from Devon’s retirement top spot

(Last Updated On: August 6, 2015)

The news that Devon has topped a league table of places to enjoy a long, healthy and safe retirement is good for local charities. The list, compiled by Prudential, used census data and results from the insurer’s own retirement research to rank the top 20 counties in England and Wales.

The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, which runs Paignton Zoo and Living Coasts in Torquay, as well as Newquay Zoo in Cornwall, says that people who are retired or near retirement are crucial to its “blue army” of volunteers.

At Paignton Zoo 153 volunteers supported 12 departments and donated over 22,000 hours last year. At the much smaller Living Coasts, 37 volunteers tackled 19 different roles and in 2014 gave 5,239 hours – that’s equivalent to 654 working days. In addition, the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust has 11 trustees who last year gave 266 hours between them.

Neil Thomas-Childs, Volunteer Co-ordinator for Paignton Zoo and Living Coasts: “Volunteers do not replace staff, but provide invaluable support, doing everything from talking to visitors to helping prepare animal feeds. Without their time and dedication so much of what volunteers do would not be possible.”

He says 40% of the charity’s volunteers are over 60 and a third over 65. Over 40% are retired or semi-retired. “I thought the best way to encourage more older or retired people to volunteer with us was to invite the ones who are here to explain in their own words why it’s such a good idea.”

So why do older people make good volunteers? Neil: “Volunteers of all ages are important to us. Older volunteers bring a wealth of life experience and can be good with people and situations and just getting along. They will often stay longer – young people move on into work or to other situations. Many retired people want to give time to a charitable cause once they have more time to give. For others it’s about keeping active and stimulated in retirement, or putting old skills to new use. Some miss the social interactions of work and volunteer to meet people who have similar – or completely different – interests. Volunteering is always a two-way thing.”

Take Trish Lilly, who volunteers at Paignton Zoo, having retired from British Airways when she was 50. “I LOVE volunteering at the Zoo! I volunteer alongside delightful people and the role I am in gets me involved with the general public and the chance to learn so much more about the animals and their conservation. Couldn’t think of a better place than Paignton Zoo to volunteer…..Wednesdays are a joy!”

Liz Emerson, from Torquay, was a GP; now she’s a volunteer cataloguing library books and photographs. “I had always been interested in zoology ever since school. I am also interested in conservation and the environment. And then I met someone who had been a volunteer at Paignton Zoo after retirement.”

Liz planned her volunteering before she retired, which came just a year early. “It’s useful so you continue to have a feeling of self-worth. You have to fill your time and do things you enjoy when you retire, and not just sit at home and vegetate.” In her case it’s music, travel and her family as well as volunteering. “It’s a very friendly place and the staff I’ve been in contact with have all been interested and friendly and helpful. Meeting other people, especially people younger than myself, keeps my brain active!”

David Sams, from Paignton, is known locally for conducting non-denominational funeral services, though he had a career in the Navy and worked as a Relate counsellor and in the hospice movement.

“On my 60th birthday I did a Keeper for a Day experience and on my 63rd birthday I did Vet for a Day. It was a privilege; I was overwhelmed by the professionalism and total commitment of all the people I came into contact with. After this I was convinced that I wanted to help out.”

He started volunteering before he retired, spending either a Saturday or a Sunday at the Zoo. Now he supports the Zoo’s busy in-house veterinary department. What does he enjoy about volunteering? “Spending time with dedicated, professional people who have a passion for their role – I’ve learnt a lot about animal welfare and health care. I enjoy the buzz of being some small help and this gives me a lot of satisfaction.

“It is a chance to meet with like-minded people. The volunteers – the blue army – are a great crowd and there are opportunities throughout the year for socialising and to meet informally when we are not in the blue.”

John Tyson’s impressive beard gives the game away – John has been the Paignton Zoo Father Christmas for many years. “I especially enjoy playing Santa – visitors and children appear to enjoy the experience, too!”

John, who retired all of two months early, also enjoys photography and keeping up with the latest technology. “I decided to do voluntary work to feel of some use after retiring. Paignton Zoo was my first choice. I think the Zoo does worthwhile work in preserving threatened animals and I feel I can contribute to the effort.”

In her working life Gail Smith supported cancer patients and their families. Now she’s a meet and greet volunteer at Living Coasts. “I wanted to volunteer after 40 years with the NHS because I felt I had the capacity and vivacity to spread my wings, explore out of my comfort zone and make a difference to other people and to myself. I only decided to volunteer after I retired because I was not aware of all the opportunities that were available beforehand.

“I have found my time at Living Coasts a life-enforcing, multi-varied experience, staff have made me feel very welcome, my views as a volunteer are listened to and appreciated and I feel it is a mutually beneficial experience for all concerned.”

Dave Lister lives in Paignton and is a former mental health support worker. He now volunteers as a diver at Torquay’s coastal zoo, helping to keep the large underwater viewing windows clean for visitors. In contrast to those who retired early, Dave worked an extra year.

“I made plans before I retired,” he says. “I did not want to sit around with nothing to do.” With his list of interests including canoeing, flying radio controlled aircraft, diving, walking, volunteering at Coast Watch and travelling to isolated regions, it sounds as though he was never going to be bored. What are the benefits of volunteering at Living Coasts?

“I get to meet other people with similar interests, it gives structure to my week, it helps with general fitness. I like diving with the penguins and doing something useful with my time.”

Although the charity draws volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds, professions, ages and interests, many older volunteers have experience of the public health or service industries. It seems that, in retirement, those who spent their careers caring for people like to support a charity caring for animals.

The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust is the charity that runs Paignton Zoo, Living Coasts in Torquay and Newquay Zoo in Cornwall, as well as several nature reserves in Devon. For more information on volunteering at Paignton Zoo or Living Coasts go to, or ring 0844 474 2222.

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