Last year senior Americans contributed an estimated $19 billion to society. No, that wasn’t in donations or taxes, but in volunteer work. More than 6 out of 10 seniors engage in some volunteer activity—whether formal activities, such as working for an organization, or informal, such as spending time helping others not in their household.
They’re smart to do so. Many studies show that health, well-being, mood and mental functioning improve among seniors who volunteer….and the research keeps coming in. Most recently, in February, 2019, a study of 1,200 Senior Corp volunteers found that 32 percent of them who were in good health when the project began reported even better health two years later. Of those who reported five or more symptoms of depression at the start, 78 percent said they felt less depressed.
In a comprehensive review of 74 studies of the health impact of volunteering, Nicole Anderson, PhD, Director of the Ben & Hilda Katz Inter-Professional Research Program in Geriatric and Dementia Care in Toronto (and her colleagues) report, “Volunteering has most consistently been associated with better overall health and fewer functional limitations.” Anderson concludes that there is strong evidence that volunteering is associated with living longer.
What seniors often say they get from their community service are opportunities for personal growth, a sense of accomplishment and new friends—all of which contribute to good health.
Do What You Love
“I love to shop!” laughs Sue Maturlo, MD, 72, as she explained why she, a recently retired endocrinologist, would choose to volunteer at the Presbyterian Women’s Thrift Shop in Incline Village, Nevada. Sue was only half-joking, but because of her shopping interests, she knows how to organize everything from sweaters to skis. Plus, she has a good idea of what things cost so she can estimate the resale value of donations at the thrift shop. “And the work is fun!” Sue adds.
Along with being a mood booster, Sue found an unexpected benefit. It gets her moving. Considering she recently had knee and back surgery, moving was just what the doctor (herself) ordered. “When you make a commitment to volunteer, you have to be there no matter what.” Engaging with customers and fellow volunteers at the shop, she says, makes you forget you didn’t want to get out of bed.
What volunteering does for you
It’s not easy narrowing down all the causes you care about—the environment, literacy, children, refugees, animals—to just one or two. But to make a lasting commitment to volunteering you need to first do just one thing that makes you feel good. Don’t settle for a job you don’t enjoy. If you hate cooking, you may not want to volunteer to feed the homeless. Later, when you’ve had more experience with the person or organization you’re working with, you can change course or add to it.
How many hours must you volunteer to gain health benefits? “I like to say that about one hundred annual hours. Three hours a week is the “sweet spot” where the benefits are the greatest, says Anderson, who is also the author of Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment (Oxford University Press),
You can use the skills you have professionally or with an interest. For example, two years before volunteering at the thrift shop, Sue used her experience counseling patients to start a bereavement support group with her friend, an interfaith minister. Sue continues to devote at least two-hours a week to that group.
You may be most satisfied by volunteering in way that allows you to learn something new, while helping others. You don’t have to volunteer doing exactly what you did during your working life. On the other hand, some seniors prefer to put their job experience to work for others. The choice is yours – Sue did both.
Finding A Job That Fits
To do something for three hours a week, it’s best to start locally. Look around your neighborhood. Animal shelters, for instance, always need volunteers. Some schools welcome homework helpers to work with students after school. Libraries, too, appreciate some helping hands. You can try asking your friends if they volunteer and what they do. You might ask to accompany them to see what’s involved in their work and whether it appeals to you, too.
Or try this strategy: Think of the things you enjoy doing most, and then do some research in your community or your city for an organization where you can do it. Another option is to contact an organization that assists in finding volunteer work in your area. Here are three to get you started:
- VolunteerMatch is the Web’s largest volunteer engagement network.
- Points of Light is a global network covering 250 cities and 37 countries.
- Idealist.org lets you enter your skill or interest and location to find volunteer opportunities in your area and nearby cities.