Volunteer Work: It's Good for Your Health

When Bebe Fitzgerald began working as a volunteer for the Audubon Society at age 53, it was something of a lark. But the resident of Billings, Montana, kept volunteering for three decades until her death at age 83. On one of her last birding trips, she admitted that she couldn't spot birds quite as easily as she used to, but she still provided invaluable assistance to a group of novices who didn't know their grackles from their grebes.

In addition to her work for the Aubudon Society, Fitzgerald coordinated volunteers for the Global Village, a charity organization that sells crafts, clothing, and other products from the Third World countries. She never had any trouble finding people who were willing to donate their time, she said. Perhaps that's because so many people have discovered what she found out during 30 years of service: The benefits of volunteering can go far beyond the satisfaction of a job well done.

"You want to reach out and do what you can," said Fitzgerald in one of her last interviews. "And volunteer work keeps you busy and active instead of sitting and brooding."

What do senior citizens get out of volunteering?

According to Senior Corps, over 26 million senior citizens in this country have already discovered the sense of purpose and accomplishment that comes from volunteering, whether it's running a church rummage sale, teaching English, or recruiting donors for a blood drive. And the work comes with a hefty bonus: Seniors who volunteer may actually add years to their lives.

Researchers at the University of Michigan discovered a remarkable link between volunteer work and longevity by surveying 1,211 adults over 65 (mostly retirees) and checking up on them eight years later. Those who volunteered at least 40 hours each year to a single cause were 40 percent more likely than non-volunteers to be alive at the end of study. The trend held even when researchers took differences in the two groups' incomes, health, and number of weekly social interactions into account. Interestingly, focus seemed to be crucial: Volunteers who spread their time among several organizations didn't gain an advantage in longevity.

Of course, senior citizens who volunteer their time do much more than help themselves. Their experience, expertise, and attitude make them valuable members of many organizations. According to the Administration on Aging, the demand for older volunteers is increasing dramatically. If you have the hours to spare, somebody can use your talents.

How can I find volunteer opportunities?

Your church, synagogue, mosque, or local community center can be an excellent starting point. You can also find volunteer opportunities in the telephone directory under the headings "volunteer centers," "volunteer action centers," "volunteer bureau," or "United Way." Or you can contact one of the following national organizations that recruits older volunteers:

Administration on Aging http://www.aoa.gov 202-619-0724. The AoA enlists 500,000 volunteers nationwide, many of them senior citizens, to help older people in need. (Studies have found that senior citizen volunteers are especially effective at aiding the elderly.) Volunteer activities include delivering meals to the homebound, escorting frail seniors to needed services, repairing homes of low-income and frail seniors, assisting at senior centers, and counseling older people on health, nutrition, and finances.

Volunteers of America http://www.voa.org 800-899-0089. A nonprofit founded in 1896, the VOA is a national, faith-based organization that provides services to millions of Americans in need.

Senior Corps http://www.seniorcorps.gov 202-606-5000. This branch of the federally funded Corporation for National and Community Service helps people 55 and over find volunteering opportunities in their community. The corps runs a foster grandparent program that helps children with special needs; a senior companion program that helps at-risk seniors live independently; and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) that provides many different services. Senior companions and foster grandparents must be 60 or over and willing to work at least 15 hours each week.

For many seniors, volunteering is something they can hardly imagine themselves not doing. Among them is Leon Gurny, who finds his volunteer time as an English tutor to adult professionals profoundly gratifying. The Chicago resident has taught his students, who hail from China, Poland, Bulgaria, and many other countries, to work crossword puzzles ("they love it and it's great for their vocabulary"). He also keeps them busy with reading and Henny Youngman joke books. "Sometimes when I go on vacation, I feel guilty and start having withdrawal pains," Gurny says. "I get juiced up to go to class; it keeps my mind alert."

Since human beings are social animals, it makes sense that helping others and being connected to our community is a mutual benefit -- especially since people are living longer and healthier lives. Berkeley psychologist Bruce Linton puts it simply, "By volunteering and helping others, we're able to enjoy the greatest of all human pleasures: caring for others and being cared about."

Further Resources

VolunteerMatch
http://www.volunteermatch.org

References

Senior Corps. Are there are lot of volunteer opportunities for seniors? 2011. http://www.seniorcorps.org/rsvp/are-there-a-lot-of-volunteer-opportunities-for-seniors/

Bureau of Labor Statistics. Volunteering in the United States, 2008. January 2009. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm

Corporation for National and Community Service. The health benefits of volunteering. 2007. http://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07_0506_hbr.pdf

Van Willigen M. Differential benefits of volunteering across the life course. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2000 Sep;55(5):S308-18.

Menec VH, Chipperfield JG. Remaining active in later life. The role of locus of control in seniors' leisure activity participation, health, and life satisfaction. J Aging Health. 1997 Feb;9(1):105-25.

Independent Sector. Americas Senior Volunteers. http://www.independentsector.org/programs/research/senior_volunteers_in_america.html

Senior Corps. Foster Grandparents. http://www.seniorcorps.org/about/programs/fg.asp

Senior Corps. Senior Companions. http://www.seniorcorps.org/about/programs/sc.asp

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