Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.”
The sentiment has launched a thousand volunteers into service over the years — but for those who know Wilde’s history, as a gay aesthete, the proponent of a philosophy of pleasure, and author of the narcissist’s how-to The Picture of Dorian Gray, an epigram about altruism might seem uncharacteristic.
After all, this is the same guy who wrote, “To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance,” and “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”
But we can all learn from Wilde’s observation that small acts can be a big deal. Taking the leap to lend a hand can make a huge difference in a person’s quality of life, and the benefits go both ways: by helping others, we help ourselves.
It’s especially relevant when it comes to younger people making a difference in older people’s lives. When the wisdom of age and the energy of youth (and vice versa) come together, it sustains and builds community. And for younger generations, understanding where they’re going brings greater meaning to where they are.
Following is a list of organizations that help connect people of all ages to volunteer opportunities benefiting older individuals, and to the lived experience of sharing small acts of kindness.
According to SAGE, the advocacy group, older LGBTQ+ Americans are twice as likely to live alone, twice as likely to be single, and three to four times less likely to have children, compared to their peers. For homebound individuals, that translates to little weekly contact with the outside world other than visits with health professionals, and virtually no contact with members of the LGBTQ+ community.
To alleviate that isolation, SAGE offers programs that are opportunities for older and young people alike. SAGEConnect, which launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, pairs volunteers nationwide with SAGE participants, or “friends at home,” for weekly phone conversations. Calls are about 30 minutes a week, for at least six weeks, and longer if you make a connection. It’s one way to give back to the generation that started the LGBTQ+ equality movement, and a great chance to form a friendship with someone you might not otherwise meet.
In New York, SAGE’s Friendly Visitor program is another proven way to build communities across generations. Founded in 1979, this first-of-its-kind program in the U.S. matches volunteers from the community with older adults to form relationships that are mutually rewarding.
Friendly visitor volunteers are screened and trained and asked to make a one-year minimum commitment. They visit with “friends at home” once a week for an hour or two and make phone calls. They also attend supportive and educational meetings every other month. SAGE hopes to roll out this in-person support program nationally.
Another innovative bridge between generations is SAGE’s national LGBTQ+ Speed Mentoring program. Just like “speed dating,” speed mentoring includes facilitated one-on-one conversations and time to mingle between participants. Cue cards prompt conversations about mentees’ project goals and skills, while music, food and drinks liven up the sessions.
Agencies dedicated to serving older adults exist in every state, providing volunteer opportunities. You can search by state for your department of aging, or check out the Eldercare Locator, a federal program from the U.S. Administration on Aging designed to connect older adults, families, and caregivers with services. Volunteers can request opportunities with LGBTQ+ individuals.
California is one example of a state with a robust set of programs dedicated to serving older adults. The California Department of Aging oversees services provided locally by Area Agencies on Aging (AAA). Each year about ten million people use these services and programs, and their delivery largely depends on dedicated volunteers in the community.
Volunteers help in many ways, including assisting at group meals sites and delivering meals to the home-bound elderly; escorting and transporting frail older persons to health care services, on essential shopping errands and to other needed services; visiting homebound people to help ensure their well-being through regular social contacts; and counseling for nutrition, legal and financial concerns. One vital volunteer opportunity is serving as a long-term care ombudsman representative to help ensure the safety and well-being of residents in long-term care facilities.
Look for volunteer opportunities with the Area Agency on Aging in your community which you can find in a comprehensive list at USAging or through your state’s department of aging. In California, check out California Volunteers through the office of the governor.
In San Francisco, Openhouse is a model organization dedicated to helping older LGBTQ+ people. In 2022, the group served over 3000 individuals with visits, wellness services, resource and housing navigation, an aging “cultural humility” training program and organizational transformation programs, a community-based adult day program, and community engagement programs. Volunteer opportunities at Openhouse include deliveries to homebound clients, visits, errand runs, and event and tech support.
TurnOut is a volunteer-based community mobilization network headquartered in California “powering queer and trans movements.” With a focus on LGBTQ+ elders, homeless queer youth, mental health, and queer history and arts, TurnOut helps volunteers with over 100 queer nonprofits, providing resources, training, and support. “Connect with thousands of other volunteers who are passionate about queer causes; learn the history of queer and trans community organizing; and meet the activists who are working on the frontlines of today’s most urgent social justice issues—all while making a real difference for the LGBTQ+ causes you care about.”
The nonprofit online service Volunteer Match pairs other nonprofits with volunteers. Search by keyword for specific volunteer opportunities. Type in “LGBTQ seniors,” for example, and dozens of matches come up, from a Legacy Letter Liaison with AgePRIDE in Seattle, to an LGBTQ+ Community Engagement Volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern Nevada.
LGBTQ+ community centers are always looking for volunteers, and many have programs geared toward community members 55+. You can find a comprehensive list of community centers at CenterLink, or search the internet for the one closest to you. Call to ask about volunteer opportunities, or search their site for a volunteer form, such as The William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia.
You’re one step closer to sharing your own “small act of kindness.”