How Introverts Can Benefit From Working with the Elderly

An introvert volunteers and helps an elderly woman

I wasn’t sure if I would be able to relate to the nursing home residents in a meaningful way. But I was wrong.

The first time I walked into the resident building of the nursing home, I remember being confused. It definitely seemed like a home — comfy couches, heavy carpets, and paintings featured prominently around the halls, and each floor had a kitchen, lounge, and rec room. 

But the air felt… harsh. There was a lingering scent of disinfectant, and a pile of face masks and hand sanitizers featured on a side table. Every so often, nurses and doctors in scrubs would flit between the rooms. I saw a hospital bed and ivy pushed against a wall. 

As a psychology major applying to graduate school, I knew the importance of getting patient experience with a variety of different populations. So when a volunteer position at a long-term care center opened up, I promptly took it. 

Volunteering With Others as an Introvert 

I am an introvert who characteristically enjoys doing meaningful work with a clearly visible impact, and I figured this would be a great opportunity for me. I began counting down the days to my first shift, slowly feeling a little more nervous. (P.S. Don’t you just love our overthinking tendencies?) 

I hadn’t spent much time around the elderly before — my grandparents live abroad, and much of my prior volunteer experiences had been with children and adolescents in summer camps and swimming lessons. I found myself worrying about how I would relate to older people. What am I supposed to talk about? What if they can’t understand me? What if one of them has a medical emergency while I’m with them? What if…? 

But within 30 minutes of my first day, I was able to put all my worries to rest and feel at ease. I now look forward to my weekly shifts, and I’d like to share the reasons I think introverts are especially suited to working with the elderly, regardless of your prior experience. 

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How Introverts Can Benefit from Working with the Elderly

1. You don’t have to worry about small talk or being overly social.

One of the most dramatic differences I noticed between the elderly and pretty much every other group of people I have been around? The quietness. Many of the residents do not talk much, gazing off into the distance or focused on the TV, caught up in their own worlds. 

For introverts who weary quickly of tiring social situations, this can be a nice change of pace. As I wheel residents around the patio, none of us fill the silence unnecessarily. 

Given that I volunteer specifically in the dementia ward, this holds even more true. When the recreation therapist assigns me a resident to work with, I locate them and make a quick introduction to state my intentions: “Hello, my name is Vanit and I’m a volunteer. Would you like to go on a walk outside?” Then, assuming they agree, I proceed to take them. 

Beyond that, there isn’t much need for speaking — just the two of us enjoying the morning air. (There’s no need to talk just for the sake of talking.) On the plus side, I find that when residents do initiate conversation, it is often something that is important to them. They might say, “My granddaughter loves those kinds of flowers,” “I used to play catch with my son in a garden that looked like this,” or “I had a dog who loved chasing birds…”

Although we introverts may hate small talk, we thrive on genuine connection and meaningful conversation. I can’t help but feel honored that the residents choose to share a part of their lives with me. Then, I ask them for details, reciprocating with stories of my own. Making them smile and laugh is always a hallmark of my day. 

2. You’ll work with people who are kind and compassionate.

It is normal to worry about how you are going to fit in with your peers when starting any new job or position. For introverts who do not make a habit of associating with new people on a regular basis, it can amount to a source of anxiety

Within 30 minutes of my first day at the nursing home, however, I felt like I was in a building full of people who were just like me. Many of the staff and volunteers are also soft-spoken, quiet, and contemplative about the work they do, which has made for some interesting and eye-opening conversations. Indeed, part of the reason I now look forward to my weekly shifts is due to my wonderful coworkers.

I have also been pleasantly surprised by the range in age and life experiences of the other volunteers. As a student, I always assumed that volunteering was a phenomenon specific to high school and college students trying to gain experience to move on to “bigger and better” things. 

But at least half the volunteers I have met are adults in their 40s and 50s, many of whom got involved with the nursing home because they witnessed the value it provided their own parents, and they wish to give back to the community. I am often amazed when I speak to them; even with their own busy careers and family responsibilities to think of, they find the time to put in a couple of hours every week to bring comfort to the residents. 

I believe that many introverts share this same empathy, wanting to do work that really matters. The experience has changed my perception of volunteering, and has made me realize that I want to continue being involved with volunteer work throughout my life. 

Do you ever struggle to know what to say?

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3. You’ll have a routine to follow and know what is expected of you.

I recall volunteering at a minister’s political event during high school where I just stood around aimlessly, waiting for someone to tell me what to do. While many of my friends were content to hide out in a back room, waiting for their shift to be over, I felt uncomfortable doing nothing.

Introverts do not function well with ambiguity, especially when it feels like we should be doing something. That event was definitely a wake-up call for me to pursue opportunities where I could visibly see what impact I was having. Sure enough, my days at the nursing home provide me with that sense of certainty, and I have a fixed set of tasks that I need to complete. Here’s the rundown:

9 a.m.: Clock in for the day, check in with my supervisor, and help feed some of the residents.  

9:30 a.m.: Wheel several of the residents, one at a time, around the patio for their morning “exercise.”

10 a.m.: Do a book club with some of the less-severely-affected residents, which means choosing a book, reading it, and asking for opinions and insights. (As an introvert who loves books, this is probably my favorite part of the day!)

10:45 a.m.: Debrief with my supervisor about the day, report any issues I noticed, and say goodbye to the residents, staff, and other volunteers.

11 a.m.: Clock out for the day.

Having a concise schedule gives me a guideline of things to do every week, along with the flexibility to be creative and change things up for the residents to keep it interesting. This is the kind work environment which many introverts function very well within. 

Even more importantly, having a set routine is as valuable for the residents as it is for introverts — we like having a plan. I’ve noticed that elderly patients tend to prefer a lifestyle which is orderly and predictable, as it provides a sense of security and certainty. 

For patients with dementia, these tendencies are even more pronounced. It is frightening to lose memories of who and where you are, and even worse to feel like you are at the mercy of unfamiliar care staff. It is one of the reasons why we always introduce ourselves and state our intentions before working with a patient. 

My supervisor has been working at the nursing home for several years, and nearly all the residents recognize her, which is very valuable to their emotional health and psychological well-being. Routine keeps things predictable, and I believe that introverts who like routine therefore have a big advantage when it comes to working with the elderly. 

4. There are opportunities to go beyond your comfort zone.

In my previous articles, I have mentioned how important it is for introverts to stretch themselves occasionally, and put themselves in social situations which can be slightly uncomfortable. Working at the nursing home has made me realize that we can often find such opportunities in introvert-friendly spaces

For example, the nursing home regularly hosts a “pub night,” where all the residents, volunteers, and staff gather in the cafeteria for an evening of live music, performances, and activities. It is actually a great way for local artists to gain exposure within the community, while the nursing home, and its residents, benefit from free entertainment.

Importantly, each pub night also features an open mic session, where volunteers and staff are encouraged to come up on stage and share their talents. I remember being shocked at how comfortable and willing people were to participate, completely free from any fear of judgment or embarrassment. (Can you imagine, my fellow introverts?)

Like many introverts, I can be prone to overanalyzing social situations and worrying about how my behavior will be perceived. But as I watched my supervisor go on stage and strum a guitar to the song “Country Roads,” a fellow volunteer recite poetry, and a resident slowly limp onto stage and launch into “Sweet Caroline” to the delight of the entire room, that might have been the first time in my life I was surrounded by strangers and actually felt myself wanting to go on stage. (I haven’t managed to do so yet, but give me another few pub nights and I’m 85 percent sure I’ll be up there with my ukulele.)

I have wondered why I feel so comfortable in the nursing home and so willing to take a social risk that I would otherwise flatly reject. I suspect it has to do with the core values and mission of working in any health care facility — we see individuals at their most vulnerable during every shift and strive to be present for them, no matter what. 

In a place like that, no one feels the need to maintain a facade, and we don’t have much to hide. Our intentions are clear, and we are all bound by the same purpose: to preserve human life. For introverts who value that kind of harmony, it can be a very liberating experience. 

Volunteering as an Introvert Maximizes Your Strengths

I feel fortunate to have had so many work and volunteer experiences in the last two years; not only have they catered toward my needs as an introvert, but have also aligned with my career goals and interests. I am excited by the prospect to keep volunteering at the nursing home and provide whatever therapeutic benefit in my power. 

While being an introvert can be challenging at times, there are many places in which our personality is not only tolerated, but can flourish. I believe that an environment working with the elderly is a great example of that. 

I encourage all of you to get involved with volunteer work for a cause which you are passionate about — human services, sports, animal welfare, or whatever the case may be. It won’t take more than an hour or two out of your week, and the pride you will inevitably feel is more than sufficient compensation.

Introverts, have you volunteered, and where? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

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