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Voluntourism: Are You Up to the Challenges?

Helping out in an exotic locale can be ideal if you ask key questions first

By Bart Astor

Volunteering to work around the globe on projects you support and believe in can be extraordinarily rewarding.

Not surprisingly, “voluntourism” programs to exotic locales with a goal of helping the less fortunate have become very popular with 50+ adults searching for creative and challenging ways to spend newly-found free time.

But sometimes the challenges presented in these programs detract from the experience.

When choosing the project you want to work on, it’s important that you learn not just about the sponsoring organization, but also about the specific work you’ll be doing and where you’ll be staying. That way, you won’t find surprises when you arrive.

My friend Paul volunteered to go to Uganda to work on an AIDS project. As with most voluntourism, he paid his own way there and received free lodging and food in exchange for working in a village.

Overall, Paul’s experience was extremely rewarding. But he was frustrated, too, by how much physical work was required. Having had multiple spinal surgeries, Paul’s ability to lift and bend was compromised. A strong back was one of the key requirements for the specific jobs most needed in the village.

Throughout his professional life, Paul was a manager and strategic thinker. His skills didn’t match the village’s need for intensive manual labor.

(MORE: Volunteer Vacations: How to Be Sure You're Helping)

Gauge Your Activity Level

When we think about volunteering, or, indeed, how we plan to spend our free time, a key factor to consider is how active we want to be and can be.

This is where my “Level of Activity” Scale (LOA) comes in.

I developed the LOA for my book, AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life. It gives a snapshot of physical ability and/or the type of person you are. The “Type A” person, who is always on the go, extremely active and works out daily, is the highest on the scale.

In contrast, the person with limited mobility and a low-activity lifestyle is at the bottom. The scale is not chronological — that is, you don’t drop from one LOA to another simply by having lived another year. In fact, if you are so motivated, you can choose to move up the ladder to a higher LOA as you age.

For example, the 65-year old who decided to train for a century bike ride (100 miles) but who hasn’t done this kind of physical exertion in years increased her LOA. And the previously active 50-year old who suffered a debilitating injury and now has severe back pain lowered his LOA level — he now coaches instead of plays.

When we define ourselves — and when others define us — we often start with our age. That puts us in a cubbyhole that can be hard to break out of. Instead, when we choose activities and hobbies, we should pay attention to where we are on the LOA Scale.

When Paul first agreed to work on the project in Uganda, both he and the program would have been well served by a discussion about physical demands and limitations. The program could have changed Paul’s work assignments, or he could have chosen a different experience.


Consider Living Conditions

Similarly, when signing up for a voluntourism experience it’s important that you know what the living arrangements will be. That way you’re not so taken aback that you can’t enjoy the good work you’re doing.

(MORE: Before You Volunteer, Ask Yourself These Questions)

My sister-in-law just returned from two weeks of volunteering in a low-income school in Guatemala City. As a former teacher and principal, she worked directly with students, helping them with English and study skills.

Roberta’s experience was like that of many other 50+ adults.

“I loved the school where I worked, and I especially enjoyed working with the kids,” she reported. “But the living arrangements weren’t ideal and, frankly, took away from the experience.”

She realized that sharing a small room and bathroom in a difficult neighborhood where she couldn’t roam was more roughing it than she was comfortable with.

She was unable to explore Guatemala City, one of her reasons for choosing that program, and she was unable to practice her Spanish, one of the goals she had when signing up.

The trip, while rewarding, didn’t let her meet her need for privacy and comfort. And it didn’t match her activity level in terms of exploration.

Even when the match of program and volunteer isn’t perfect, most people come away feeling they’ve helped. But next time, they — and you — should consider asking a few more questions at the start for an even better experience all around.

Photograph of Bart Astor
Bart Astor, an expert in life transitions and elder care, is the author of the book AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life: Smart Choices About Money, Health, Work, Lifestyle and Pursuing Your Dreams and Baby Boomer’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents. His website is and he can be reached at [email protected]. Read More
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