Volunteering Promotes Healthy Aging and a Healthy Nation

Related topics: Senior Life, Heart Health, Brain Health, Senior Lifestyles

April 21 - 27 is National Volunteer Week 2013. If you think you are too old to be of service to others, think again!

Foster Grandparent Program volunteer Minette Wheeler tutors Erin Jackson, a student at Miner Elementary School in Washington, DC. (Photo: Corporation for National and Community Service)

Medical research confirms that loneliness is bad for our health. Feelings of isolation raise blood pressure and contribute to sleep disorders, cognitive impairment and a host of other chronic conditions. Geriatricians say that spending more time with others can lengthen our lives, lower the risk of depression and also protect our heart health.

Is spending time in pleasant conversation enough? Several recent studies suggested that meaningful activity is also important, especially for the brain. A 2010 study from Rush University in Chicago revealed that people who lack a sense of purpose in life have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. And in 2012, Rush researchers found something even more impressive: research subjects whose brain scans featured the typical changes associated with Alzheimer's disease had fewer outward signs of the disease if they felt their lives had meaning. Explained researcher Dr. Patricia Boyle, "Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose, even as plaques and tangles accumulated in the brain."

Rounding out this set of studies, researchers from University of California, Riverside showed that practicing acts of kindness can be an effective way of treating depression. They used brain imaging to demonstrate that altruistic behaviors and other positive interactions can boost circuits in the brain that reverse depression and apathy.

But in our later years, we often confront barriers to maintaining a sense of purpose and self-esteem. Our children are grown. We retire from our lifetime careers. We may have lost our spouse or developed health problems that seem to occupy most of our attention. These are definite challenges and not to be ignored.

How can we continue to feel connected and valuable? For more and more older adults today, volunteer service is providing that sense of purpose and meaning in life, as well as promoting socialization and physical activity. Volunteering offers a tremendous boost to healthy aging. A 2012 article in the American Medical Association News even urged doctors to "prescribe" volunteer service for their patients!

Senior Environmental Corps volunteers Steve Levin and David Schogel gather a water sample from a stream in Philadelphia. (Photo: Corporation for National and Community Service)

Healthcare providers and service organizations alike are calling this new emphasis on volunteer service a big win-win. Today, the need for volunteers is greater than ever. In a recovering but still shaky economy, charitable donations are down. Big budget cuts on every level mean there is less money in the public coffers for social services and education. So it's not surprising that social service agencies, community groups, non-profit organizations, schools and cultural organizations all report that they rely more than ever on volunteers to help their programs succeed. Fortunately, help has arrived as seniors are stepping up in greater numbers to offer their services and give back to the community. The U.S. Administration on Aging reports that a record number of older adults are volunteering today—almost one in four, or close to 10 million.  

According to Dr. Erwin Tan, director of the U.S. Senior Corps volunteer program, "Today, Americans over 65 represent 13 percent of our population. By the year 2030, that number will be 20 percent. But while some may talk about how the aging of America is a problem to be solved, we at Senior Corps believe it is an opportunity for both individuals and communities. The boomer generation is the most educated and healthiest group of people over 55 that America has ever seen, and they are looking for ways to give back to their communities."

RSVP Volunteer Executive Counselors Alan Kober and Marion Silver share their business expertise with Elaine Gershenson. (Photo: Corporation for National and Community Service)

I Want to Volunteer! Where Do I Start?

Locating volunteer positions in your area means finding a good match between the available opportunities and your own skills and interests. You might be surprised at how your special talents can be put to use—and you might find yourself tapping into your potential in new ways you hadn't even envisioned! As you search for an organization that can use your help, first consider...

  • your special skills
  • your work experience
  • special knowledge you can share
  • your interests and the things that are important to you
  • the amount of time and commitment you are willing and able to offer.
Next, investigate the organizations in your community that welcome volunteers and provide training for committed individuals:
  • hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and other healthcare organizations
  • schools and youth organizations
  • community agencies (such as senior centers or the public library)
  • charitable organizations
  • parks and recreation department
  • faith communities
  • cultural groups (museums, theaters, art societies, music groups)
  • civic organizations
  • political groups.
If none of these ideas inspire you, make your own volunteer opportunity! Call an organization that interests you and see if they have a volunteer program. If you have the desire to give of your time and energy, volunteer opportunities await you!

Great Places to Locate Volunteer Opportunities

You might begin by calling your local Senior Services office. The U.S. Corporation for National and Community Service is also a great place to start. This agency offers many volunteer ideas, and several of their programs are tailored especially for older adults: Senior Corps, for people over age 55, includes programs such as Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP)

Other great opportunities can be found through:

More Information About the Health Benefits of Volunteering

Read "The Health Benefits of Volunteering for Older Adults" to learn more about the ways serving others serves our good health and promotes well-being for people of every age and every health condition.

Also in this issue: Give your brain a workout with the "Senior Volunteer Opportunities" Wordfind, which contains the names of 20 places where seniors are offering their time and talents.
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