The right kind of volunteering – at the right dose – can not only make you feel good; it also can make you healthier.
Volunteering could be your ticket to healthy aging, improving your chances for a longer life with less disability.
That’s the message coming out of research by a new crop of gerontologists – among them, University of Southern California gerontologist Tara Gruenewald, Ph.D., M.P.H. – who have moved the spotlight from age-related diseases to a more positive focus on healthy aging.
Lending a Hand: The Evidence
While much attention has been focused on how having social support improves later-life physical and mental health, what about the flip side? It’s the question Gruenewald is asking. She is trying to figure out why lending a hand – especially to younger generations – is so good for older adults.
“Is giving equal to getting?” she asks. “Our research suggests that it is.”
Gruenewald has found that the right kind of volunteering makes us feel useful. Feelings of usefulness, she says, ”may shape health trajectories in older adults.” Over the past few years, she and her colleagues have discovered that older people with declining feelings of usefulness are not only more likely to have poor health, but are also less likely to live as long as those who do feel useful.
The “Right” Kind of Volunteering
All volunteering is not created equal, Gruenewald says.
“Organizations have asked older adults to stuff envelopes,” she explains. While the limited mobility needed for this task may suit less mobile seniors and the task does need to be done, Gruenewald says it’s not the sort of volunteering where people typically feel they are making a difference.
The best type, she says, is volunteering with a focus on ”generativity.”
That term, coined in 1950 by psychoanalyst Erik Erickson, is defined as a concern for helping and guiding the next generation. Erickson believed that at some points in our lives, we are drawn to generative work. We may do it as a mentor in the workplace or as a volunteer in the community, working with younger people. (People who have raised children, of course, have already experienced generativity.)
“As you get older, people expect less of you,” Gruenewald says. And that may not be desirable.
Generative Volunteering: An Intergenerational Model
Gruenewald is engaged in a National Institute on Aging study that pairs older volunteers with elementary students for many hours a week. She and her colleagues will examine whether the intergenerational effort will lead to better mental and physical health in the older adults and better academic and psychosocial outcomes in the students.
Exactly how feeling useful in this intergenerational way is linked to better health isn’t clear, Gruenewald says. It’s known that those who feel useful are less likely to feel depressed, but that doesn’t explain the physical health benefits. Possibly, volunteers may be more active, physically and socially, than those who don’t volunteer. Or it could be a combination of factors, she says: better emotional wellbeing, taking better care of yourself since you’re needed, and having more social and physical activity.
Giving back to the next generation is another positive, Gruenewald says.
The Right Dose
For the benefits of volunteering to kick in, Gruenewald says, the right ”dose” seems to be important. The benefits ”are probably not likely if you do it once a year, or just on holidays.”
But any is better than none, she quickly adds. The “old-old” may not be capable of multiple volunteering sessions each week, but for the less mobile, even minimal involvement is valuable.
Where to Tap Into Generative Volunteer Work
A variety of organizations and sites make it easy to find good volunteering options online:
- The Corporation for National and Community Service links to Americorp, Senior Corps, Foster Grandparents and others. Click here to visit the site.
- Click here to visit AARP’s Experience Corps.
- Give Gab is a new site that helps connect would-be volunteers with organizations in need of volunteer help. You create a profile that details the type of involvement you’re looking for (you can choose category as well as frequency), and the site shows you relevant opportunities near you. It’s a well designed site that’s easy to use. Click here to try it.
Have you found a good online destination for volunteer opportunities? Share it – and your experience – in the comments below.