Existential vulnerability and resilience in voluntary work with older people

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The common perception of voluntary work with older people is that someone resilient offers help to someone vulnerable, but the contrast between that vulnerability and resilience is in fact oversimplistic and stigmatizing.

We need to abandon this contrast and regard the connections between volunteers and older people in a different light.

Author: Laurine Blonk

Key words: existential approach loneliness, vulnerability, ageing, resilience, voluntary work, meaning.

Vulnerable clients and resilient volunteers

The first wave of COVID-19 in the Netherlands triggered an enormous movement of volunteers who wanted to help older people. Supply, however, was much greater than demand. In Groningen, the appeal ‘Heel Groningen Helpt’ [‘Whole Groningen Helps’] raised 1200 potential volunteers to meet just 12 requests for assistance and with other local initiatives, as well as digital platforms like Ready2Help and Coronahelpers, it was a similar picture.

In academic literature, policy and volunteer practice, however, a lot of attention is paid to older people who themselves become active as volunteers. In the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport’s programmes ‘Langer Thuis’ and ‘Eén tegen Eenzaamheid’ [resp. ‘Longer at Home’ and ‘One Against Loneliness’], not only was the voluntary support of older people discussed, but also what older people, as concerned citizens and volunteers, had to offer to others.

In both approaches to voluntary work, cultural assumptions resonate about old age, vulnerability and resilience. Older people are either vulnerable and in need of help, or socially active and helping others. The potential of the third age is contrasted with the vulnerability that is supposedly concentrated in the fourth age (Higgs & Gilleard, 2015). Paying attention to what older people can still do and what they have to offer can both counter negative stereotyping of ‘vulnerable older people’ and address these people in terms of their potential rather than their problems.

It is important to recognise the potential of older people. In doing so, however, we would do well to abandon the apparent contradiction between vulnerability and resilience. Existential vulnerability is inherent to human existence (Nussbaum, 2001) and does not disappear the moment an older person becomes active as a volunteer. It is not enough for a meaningful life, and meaningful ageing, just to remain socially active and avoid negative stereotyping such as ‘vulnerable’, we also need to find a good way of dealing with existential vulnerability (Laceulle, 2018; Machielse, 2018).

In this article, I explore the possibilities of doing so with reference to what the philosopher Ami Harbin calls ‘disorienting experiences’. She asks what kind of social practices are needed to deal well with existential vulnerability. I then set out how volunteering can constitute such a social practice making use of what the anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly writes about dealing with vulnerability and what the sociologist Richard Sennett writes about social roles.

Existential vulnerability

Harbin explains in Disorientation and Moral Life (2016) how existential vulnerability is inherent in human life in the form of disorienting experiences. These types of experience turn our relationship to ourselves, to others and our sense of what makes life worth living upside down. We can no longer apply otherwise self-evident anchor points in life and we don’t know how to proceed with our lives - we are disorientated. Disorienting experiences can come in many shapes and sizes and can confront people at any age. We can become disorientated because of the sudden loss of a loved one or our health, for example, but it can also be related to steps we undertake ourselves, such as moving house. It may be a temporary event or situation, but it can also extend over a longer period of time, such as experiences associated with ageing itself.

Harbin is critical of the way we contrast this existential vulnerability with ‘good’, everyday functioning in cultural conceptualization. According to Harbin, we regard disorientation as a temporary phase, where people should be supported and helped to leave that phase behind as soon as possible and to find a new orientation towards who they are and what makes their lives worth living. The support from our social environment or from professionals who can help us respond ‘resiliently’ to the disorienting experience may also express a social norm that adversely affects our relationship to ourselves and each other. The implicit message is that those who are disorientated are capable of little, or have little to offer to others, during that period. For the sake of our self-esteem, we prefer not to admit disorientation to ourselves, and we are far from always being able or willing to share it with others This also ensures that we have to live through disorientation with little support and we have to go without appreciation and connection. Harbin’s analysis makes clear how the prevalent opposition between vulnerability and resilience can be stigmatising for anyone who has to cope with disorientation. This is particularly problematic with ageing, as many disorienting experiences are of a persistent or irreversible nature in terms of relationships or health, for example.

The question is how we can continue to see and recognise potential, in ourselves and in others, in the midst of disorientation.

Dealing with existential vulnerability

Harbin suggests that rather than addressing people in terms of their ‘resilience’, we need to develop social practices that allow us to continue to include people during their disorientation and to continue to respect them fully. More concretely, people should find in such practices a sympathetic, non-judgemental ear to share experiences, and even in disorientation, they should be able to be connected with meaningful dimensions of their lives, to be ‘able to care for loved ones, enjoy their relationships, do meaningful activities and/or work, and pursue long-term and short-term projects’ (p.161).

Contrary to what the image of resilient volunteers helping vulnerable older people suggests, voluntary work can be precisely such an inclusive social practice. As well as the non-judgemental, listening ear that volunteers can offer, becoming active as a volunteer yourself also provides an opportunity to engage in meaningful activities or make connections during disorientation. Voluntary work during the disorientation caused by COVID-19, for example, can be a way for people to connect to their environment in a different, meaningful way.

Social resilience in voluntary work

Not only does Harbin’s perspective on existential vulnerability suggest that vulnerability and resilience should not be thought of in opposition to each other, she also shifts the focus from the capabilities of the individual to resilience as a collective capacity, embedded in practices. It is not the individual who must overcome disorientation with or without the help of others, it is about the capacity of practices to see and recognise the potential for meaningful activities and connections, without denying or repressing the disorientation.

Sometime after the death of Jan’s wife, Wijnand suggested to him that they become volunteers at the community centre. They now take care of the weekly coffee morning together. Wijnand usually welcomes the guests, breaking the ice with his anecdotes at tables where people don’t know each other yet. Jan takes care of the coffee and tea, moving back and forth between the hall and the kitchen to make more coffee and clear tables. Some weeks, he sits at one of the tables himself. The anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly (2014) offers a perspective to further clarify this ‘social resilience’. She studies how people strive to shape a meaningful life with others in defiance of profound life events. According to her, this does not happen through insights or decisions in a moment of crisis or reflection, it is a process of adjusting one’s image of oneself, one’s attitude to life, relationships and aspirations by trial and error. Social practices can be a kind of ‘experimentation space’ where one can gain experience with a different attitude to life or image of oneself, where one can establish a different kind of connection or commit to different projects. It follows then that a social practice should not want to have an answer to disorientation, but that it can increase opportunities for people to develop a creative and appropriate way of dealing with it themselves.

A social ability that is important for such ‘experiments’ is described by the sociologist Richard Sennett (1977) as ‘play-acting’. This concept touches on both play and theatre (‘acting’) and refers to the ability to establish meaningful contact by means of social roles and expectations. Unlike personal relationships, play-acting allows us a looser and more playful relationship with ourselves and each other, where our actions and communication do not have to coincide with who we are or how we feel at our deepest level. Particularly in disorientation, ‘play-acting’ is a valuable ability, as we can simultaneously be disorientated, but also connect, offer support, and care or do something together. Voluntary work offers many opportunities for ‘play-acting’. As a volunteer or participant, you adopt a particular role of which there are particular expectations and where you are equipped and supported, without it necessarily meaning that there has to be a resilient volunteer and a vulnerable client. The client who was initially in need of help can, for example, in turn offer support to the volunteer buddy when that person is going through a difficult time. The active volunteer who cannot leave their home because of COVID-related restrictions feels appreciated and a connection because of the contact that the volunteer co-ordinator maintains. When the volunteer comes to do some gardening for an older person, he or she listens to that older person’s story, or the older person listens to the volunteer. Some organised moments of contact develop into friendships.

Meaningful connections

The common perception of a resilient provider of assistance and a vulnerable, older client is oversimplistic and stigmatizing. In order to deal with existential vulnerability, we need social practices where people are fully respected and remain included while disorientated and where they remain or become connected with other meaningful sides of their lives.

Furthermore, this image of the resilient help provider and a vulnerable older person does not do justice to the value of voluntary work. Voluntary work represents a social practice where dealing well with existential vulnerability is possible. It is possible to cope creatively with different social roles in and through voluntary work, and thereby to shape a meaningful life with others despite, or precisely because of, disorienting experiences.

So, volunteering policy can make an important contribution to becoming older meaningfully, but there are two important points of consideration for policy makers. The first is that vulnerability and resilience should not be regarded as in opposition to each other. Existential vulnerability does not disappear with becoming active as a volunteer, nor is becoming a volunteer always appropriate. Receiving help and doing something for another are two sides of the same coin: the ability to lend shape with others to a meaningful life. The second point of consideration is that we should not be looking exclusively at advising older people to take up voluntary work, but that we should, above all, be looking at how practices in voluntary work can foster the social capacity of participants and volunteers to see the potential for meaningful connections and activities without denying disorientation.

Recognise the expertise, and support the role, of volunteer co-ordinators who can equip and guide participants and volunteers to do this.


Laurine Blonk
Laurine Blonk (l.blonk@uvh.nl) is a philosopher and qualitative researcher. Her doctoral research into the contribution of voluntary work to meaningful ageing is connected to the Samen Ouder Worden [‘Growing Older Together’] programme delivered by the Association of Dutch Volunteer Organizations [Vereniging NOV] and 11 national voluntary organisations as part of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport’s programme Langer Thuis [‘Longer at Home’]. See www.samenouderworden.nl.


  1. Harbin, A. (2016). Disorientation and Moral Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Higgs, P. & Gilleard, C. (2015). Rethinking Old Age: Theorising the Fourth Age. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
  3. Laceulle, H. (2018). Aging and Self-Realization. Cultural Narratives about Later Life. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
  4. Machielse, A. (2018). Een trendbreuk in eenzaamheid? Actieprogramma ‘Eén tegen eenzaamheid’. Geron 20(4), 50-52.
  5. Mattingly, C. (2014). Moral Laboratories. Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  6. Nussbaum, M. (2001). The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Sennett, R. (1977). The Fall of Public Man. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Article published in Geron, in Dutch, on 17th March 2021


Article published in Geron, in Dutch, on 17th March 2021




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