April 6 - 13 Is National Volunteer Week
Seniors are volunteering in record numbers, supporting the health of our communities—and also their own health.
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University recently discovered that seniors who regularly volunteer decrease their blood pressure by 40 percent! The study's lead author Rodlescia S. Sneed said, "As people get older, social transitions like retirement, bereavement and the departure of children from the home often leave older adults with fewer natural opportunities for social interaction. Participating in volunteer activities may provide older adults with social connections that they might not have otherwise. There is strong evidence that having good social connections promotes healthy aging and reduces risk for a number of negative health outcomes."
Volunteering is also great for the brain. Dr. Patricia Boyle of Rush University in Chicago explains that as we grow older, we may lose our sense of purpose in life—and this actually puts us at greater risk of Alzheimer's disease. Volunteering provides the kind of meaningful activity that promotes cognitive health.
Volunteer service also is a powerful tool for fighting depression. University of California, Riverside neurologists used sophisticated brain imaging to demonstrate that practicing acts of kindness boosts connections in the brain that reverse depression and apathy.
Indeed, volunteering is such a potent tonic for senior health that in 2012, the American Medical Association recommended that doctors "prescribe" volunteer service for their patients!
Your Community Needs You
In these days of austerity for our social support programs, volunteers are needed more than ever, yet the schedules of so many younger adults are full with family and job responsibilities. Fortunately, seniors are stepping up to the plate in record numbers: According to the U.S. Administration on Aging, one-fourth of all seniors volunteer—that’s 10 million pairs of helping hands. Says U.S. Senior Corps director Dr. Erwin Tan, "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."
If you would like to give back in this way, the first step is to find a good match between the available opportunities and your own skills and interests. 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, it's time to find organizations in your community that welcome volunteers and provide training for committed individuals. Many seniors have found rewarding opportunities in …
- Hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and other healthcare organizations.
- Schools and youth organizations.
- Parks and recreation departments.
- Charitable organizations.
- Faith communities.
- Civic groups.
- Cultural organizations, such as museums, theaters, art societies and music groups.
- Political groups.
If none of these ideas inspire you, why not create 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.
What if a senior is living with health problems such as arthritis, cognitive impairment or the effects of stroke? According to Arizona State University psychology professor Dr. Morris Okun, volunteering can help us live longer—and the benefit is even greater for seniors with disabilities. Okun says, "As functional limitations increase, the risk of dying increases, but not among those who volunteer. By helping other people, you are actually helping yourself." No matter what a person’s abilities, there is a volunteer job in the community that will meet a need and make the community a better place. Families can enable their senior loved ones to continue long-time volunteer service, or help them find new opportunities. If your family uses professional in-home care, arrange for the caregiver to transport your loved one to their volunteer site.
Are you ready to get started? Here are some great places to investigate volunteer possibilities:
- Your local Senior Services office may offer a list of volunteer positions for older adults.
- The USA.gov website has a directory of volunteer organizations.
- Need some inspiration as you brainstorm the possibilities? Read "Volunteerism Keeps Seniors Connected to Community" in the Right at Home blog for an extensive list of volunteer ideas.
Learn More About Preserving Our Sense of Purpose
For an in-depth look at the importance of meaningful activity in our later years, read "Can a Purpose-Driven Life Help Protect the Aging Brain?" on The Dana Foundation website.