Did you know that the United State has over 26 million senior volunteers? These volunteers give an average of 4.4 hours per week for a total of 5.5 billion volunteer hours each year. The work they do would cost $70.5 billion in paid wages. In addition to the cost savings and the value of the services they provide, there are numerous benefits for the volunteers themselves. For many years research has shown that volunteering improves the quality of life for older adults and is generally advantageous to their health and well-being. Here are findings from a few studies on the subject in the areas of longevity, health and mental well-being:
A University of Michigan study followed 2,700 parti-cipants over a 10-year period and found that those who volunteered as little as 40 hours per year (less than one hour per week) lived longer. Men who did no volunteer work at all were two and a half times more likely to die during the 10-year period, and men and women who volunteered at least once a week were 40 percent more likely to be alive after the 10 years. Yale, Johns Hopkins, the National Institute of Mental Health and studies from abroad support these findings.
Research shows that older adults who volunteer have fewer health problems than those who do not. Of 3,300 volunteers surveyed in one study, nine out of 10 rated their health as better than others of their age, even if they had health problems. A study at Cornell University tracked women over a 30-year period and found that those who volunteered were in better health than those who did not. Volunteering is one way to remain physically active.
Cognitive & Mental Well-Being
Continuing to use our brains in new and different ways is important in maintaining memory health. Volunteering helps keep the brain engaged. Doctors at Harvard and the University of California at San Francisco have prescribed volunteerism for stress reduction in their “type A” patients. In addition, volunteering allows older adults to continue to be involved in meaningful roles. This is particularly important because many older adults experience a decline in feelings of empowerment and connectedness after retirement. Volunteering can support and enhance self-esteem by providing the structure for helping others in a significant way.
There are numerous ways to become involved as a volunteer. www.1-800-volunteer.org (or, if you prefer to call, 800.volunteer) and www.volunteermatch.com are two websites that can help with direct connections to local volunteer opportunities. You might follow an existing interest or area of expertise in deciding where to volunteer.
For anyone interested in local opportunities, Center for Healthy Aging (CHA) has a number of programs in Santa Monica where volunteers work with professional staff to provide direct services to seniors. The Center’s Volunteer University provides free, in-depth training, ongoing supervision and opportunities for continued learning for CHA volunteers as well as for other agencies wanting to utilize volunteers in their programs. Having worked with volunteers for over 30 years, CHA has found that good training is a cornerstone of a successful program. Some of the Center’s volunteers have been with the agency for many years. For more information, call 310.576.2550 x244 and ask about volunteering.
Mimi Curtis, PhD, is Director of Volunteer Training and Services at Center for Healthy Aging in Santa Monica.