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Healthy Aging: How Volunteering Helps

The prospect of healthy aging is what we strive for as we get older. But we often think of it as a lottery—having to play the cards that we’ve been dealt. We know that our genetics play a big role in the hand that we have to play. We also know that the age we live in has afforded us opportunities to overcome maladies that had, not that long ago, been insurmountable. And the miracle of modern medicine continues to offer hope for us to live longer and healthier lives.

Yes, we are fortunate, but all of this seems to be beyond our control. Or is it? The simple truth is that we are constantly making very important choices that directly affect our health and wellbeing—not only our physical health, but also our mental and financial health, the three being inextricably intertwined. We believe the best care possible is when we take a holistic approach—caring for the complete person in a way that considers the physical, mental and financial aspects for the senior citizen in today’s society.

This is our first article in a series on healthy aging. We chose to start with volunteering because people often don’t recognize its great value and because it so perfectly fits with the objectives of maintaining and improving our physical, mental and financial wellbeing.

Volunteering: Raise Your Hand And Get Started

Retirement is an exciting proposition. No more early morning wake up calls or long days plowing through a stressful workload. We’ve all dreamt of having the free time to do as we wish. Unfortunately, that sweet dream can sour quickly. All that free time can turn into long, unproductive days, weeks and years that can be rife with boredom and uncertainty. Worry about the future might also be exacerbated if we didn’t plan for how we would remain active in our golden years.

Even the best retirement planning can go awry. Physical ailments can restrict travel and other plans we had for being active. We can also lose interest in what we thought would be a lifetime activity. Fortunately there are options and alternatives to consider. Perhaps one of them will lead to a more fulfilling and complete life experience in retirement. Volunteering can be an important contributor to the wellbeing of retirees, their families and communities and can actually improve wellbeing. There are also many indirect benefits to contributing time and energy through volunteering.

The Facts

  • Health is affected by social, economic and behavioral factors operating throughout the life cycle; among these are a sense of community including social support networks and social activities.
  • Volunteering among seniors has been linked to improved quality of life, stronger social networks, increased levels of physical activity and lower mortality rates.
  • One of the key benefits of volunteering is social support. Many seniors are at risk for social isolation and aging-related stresses. Research suggests that decreased social activity and loss of social networks may contribute to isolation and dependency.
  • Volunteerism contributes to healthy aging by enhancing life satisfaction and wellbeing, sense of purpose, self-confidence and personal growth.
  • Volunteering is not, by its own definition, a money-making venture. In fact, there are often costs of volunteering such as transportation expenses. Volunteering, however, is usually a low cost activity that provides significant psychological rewards.

To learn more, read the Corporation for National and Community Service’s review of recent research entitled THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF VOLUNTEERING.

Volunteer Opportunities

Many retirees find that volunteering is a fulfilling way to use their valuable skills, give back to their communities and mentor others. It may be helpful to keep the following tips in mind when planning where, when and how to volunteer:

  • Time management is important—make sure you don’t over-commit, especially at first. A good amount to start with is a couple of hours a week. It’s harder to step back, which can also be frustrating and cause a sense of insufficiency, than to step up later and take on more.
  • Make it convenient—getting there shouldn’t be a hassle. There are probably plenty of opportunities for you near your home.
  • Expect to be interviewed. Just because you’re available doesn’t mean you’re needed. Many volunteer positions have waiting lists. Be patient and let them know you will take it seriously and be committed.
  • Be prepared to interview them. Just because you’re needed doesn’t mean it will be a rewarding and fulfilling experience for you. You also get to choose the social environment you want to be in, a luxury you may not have been afforded in your previous worklife.
  • Know what you enjoy, which is often what you’re good at. Don’t try to reach too far beyond what you’ve enjoyed in the past, at least not at first.
  • If you are also looking at volunteering as a learning experience, let them know that when you’re exploring the opportunity.

Expect that you will have to do some searching to find the right fit. There are many not-for-profit organizations that list volunteer opportunities on their website, most for their own organization. There are also many smaller organizations that do not have a web presence. You can obviously expect smaller non-profits to have less structured volunteer programs: Volunteering as a docent for your local art center would be much different than volunteering for a large museum. Be prepared to invest time and effort in the search process, but try to make it enjoyable. Approaching it with the right attitude can make all the difference.

Talk to friends and acquaintances. Let them know you’re looking to volunteer. More often than not they will have some experience to share or know someone you should talk to. Volunteering with a friend can also be enjoyable, especially sharing the search process. On the other hand, some prefer to “go it alone” so they will be able to make new friends more readily.

Working volunteering into your weekly plans can play an important role in healthy aging. A valuable resource for exploring this is the website Volunteering in America (www.volunteeringinamerica.gov/), also reachable by mail at 1201 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20525 or by telephone at 202-606-5000.

Although the author is unknown, there is a favorite quote of ours that inspires us to volunteer service: “Those who can, do. Those who can do more, volunteer.”