When you ask 83-year-old Roland Edwards why he started volunteering 20 years ago, he answers candidly.
"I suppose it was quite a selfish attitude really, but I had retired and the thought of getting out and about driving people around on a minibus sounded like it would be lots of fun."
That bus was for Age Concern Tauranga, a charity that supports the wellbeing of older people in our community through educational workshops, programmes and social activities.
But soon enough, Roland learned there was a lot more to volunteering than he'd ever considered.
"We would pick people up from home and take them out for day trips. There was a woman who was always very appreciative. I went round to her place one day, and she was sitting in the chair looking quite down. She said she wasn't feeling up for it that day, but I said, come on, let's get you on your way. Within 5 minutes on the bus, she was chatting away and laughing.
"Just that contact with other people can do so much. It was rewarding to sit there driving and hear people chatting with each other – there's such a buzz when you bring people together who are otherwise quite isolated."
Roland was recently awarded a 20 Years Award from Age Concern Tauranga to recognise his dedication over the years.
He has had many roles, including being on the Age Concern Committee and Board, working on reception as their 'Man Friday', and as part of the Coffee and Conversation group.
While Roland doesn't drive the bus anymore, he has recently taken on a new role as a befriender as part of Age Concern's Visiting Service.
"I visit a fellow who is around 90-years-old. He's an ex-farmer, and as a child I was brought up on a farm, he worked with machinery, and I did similar things. Almost instantly, we had this common ground. I go round and we sit and chat about different things for an hour.
"He is quite isolated with sons that live away but is a very capable fellow – he has his own vegetable garden and does his own meals. But he enjoys having a chat, and always thanks me for being there.
"It's a two-way thing. The benefit of visiting somebody is giving them company, but it's rewarding for yourself as well. The friendships developed between visitors and clients is staggering. It's so great that people on an official basis then become real friends. The visiting service is just a starting point."
"Overall, if you have a look at the whole picture of 20 years, Age Concern has done a lot for me. It has contributed to the enjoyment of my retirement, has given me an insight into the lives of other retirees, and the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people. Age Concern has helped me stay connected too."
From falls prevention and befriender programmes to road safety campaigns and day trips, Age Concern Tauranga works to ensure older people's rights, wellbeing, and independence are preserved.
The charity supports around 1000 older people in the Western Bay of Plenty. Referrals come from health professionals, hospital and community social workers who identify older people at risk for non-medical reasons, and from family members concerned for the wellbeing of their older relative.
Age Concern Tauranga General Manager Tanya Smith says many older people simply don't want to make a fuss about the issues they are dealing with and can often end up feeling isolated.
"We see many older people that don't want to be a bother or a nuisance – they've often lost their self-worth. Where they were once getting up for work every day, mowing the lawns, playing a sport and catching up with friends, they now don't leave the house or socialise.
"Along with the loss of independence and health problems that can arise with age, it can become a very lonely place to be, and that's where depression can set in.
"What we do is keep them connected in the community, and education is a big part of that. We have workshops to refresh driving skills and plan for life without a car, on health issues like incontinence, and we have talks on elder abuse. They can be sensitive topics, but it's all about providing an encouraging and safe environment for these older people to learn and discuss amongst their peers."
Tanya says the befriender service makes a big difference in the lives of both the volunteers and clients.
"Volunteers like Roland make such a huge difference in the lives of our clients. By matching them up based on shared interests or life experiences, it can lead to friendships that last years.
"If the volunteer feels comfortable, they might suggest to the client that they're going out to the garden centre and offer to pick them up and take them out for a coffee and look around. That's a huge thing – imagine that for that older person, getting out of their four walls, socialising, and seeing the real world. They both get a big buzz from that."
TECT has supported Age Concern Tauranga since 2008 with over $75,000 in funding. $25,000 was approved in December 2020 to help cover operating costs.
Tanya says the charity would not be here without TECT's support.
"TECT's funding goes towards our operational costs and wages, which is such a hard one to fund. But it is vital as our work is so people-focused – not just with the older community, but with their families and whanau too.
"It's hard work, and we go through lots of boxes of tissues, but it is incredibly rewarding. Knowing we have TECT behind us makes such a big difference."
To learn more about Age Concern Tauranga and their many services, visit https://www.ageconcerntauranga.org.nz/.