Robert Morgan has had a close-up experience with loneliness. He says he knows how it feels to be suddenly all alone in the world.
Today, his ready smile and quick sense of humour is contagious. But he says it was no joke when one day he woke up and realised there was no one else.
His parents had died more than 40 years earlier. He has no next of kin, and when he was forced by a heart condition into sudden retirement, he said his circle of friends quickly disappeared.
“This is where loneliness kicks in,” he says. “The money runs out. Friends disappear, so your social circle comes to a full stop. Eventually there’s no one around.”
Robert says he was spared a fate awaiting many older single men – deep depression and even suicide – when he started volunteering in a Red Cross retail outlet nearly six years ago.
“If I didn’t have the volunteering I’d be in a bad situation,” he says. “It would be bleak. If you’ve got nothing to do it’s a very quick slide down.
“Women are very social but in the case of men like me, I was single and when you stop work you lose all your friends. You end up one day waking up and there’s nobody here.
“I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ If you haven’t got something to fall back on like volunteering your health suffers. Your mental health suffers.”
He looked around at what he could do to fill his days, considered visiting a men’s shed, but decided to volunteer to give something back. The Red Cross shop is close to where he lives, he realised he was meeting people in a similar situation to him, and that he could empathise with them. Six years later he’s still coming back.
Robert says his mental health is pretty robust, but being single he understand the factors behind the high depression and suicide rates for older men.
“It becomes hopeless, especially if you haven’t got anything to fall back on. Without volunteering, life would be pretty bleak.”
Jenny Buse manages the shop in inner-city Brisbane where Robert volunteers, and says he brings a lot of joy.
“He’s a very valued member of the team,” she says. “He brings a well-rounded perspective. There are a lot of younger volunteers here and Robert’s like a role model for them, with a strong work ethic.”
She says the Red Cross shop is full of people whose lives have turned around as a result of volunteering.
“Volunteering is so valuable. You get what you put into it. People feel connected. It gives them a reason to get out of bed.
“Volunteers all bring strengths and skills and bounce ideas off each other.
“When you’re home alone you dwell on your thoughts. When you come out for a four-hour shift, no matter what’s happening in your life you put your troubles aside. You’re helping people, you’re raising money for Red Cross and having fun. And that gives people peace of mind.”
And Robert couldn’t agree more.
“I can help others. That’s a plus. When I walk out of here everyone’s got a smile on their face.”