Gray Matters: Volunteering is life-changing experience

Mar 4, 2020

You can’t even throw a rock these days without hitting an article about the terrible impacts of social isolation as we age. Toss a second with your non-dominant hand and you’ll hit an article about the benefits of volunteerism. The Area 1 Agency on Aging is just a stone’s throw away and ready to help you and your friends ward off social isolation and reap the benefits of volunteering. All rock throwing aside, I am quite serious.

Articles about senior isolation and loneliness speak to what others can do to help seniors, but the person who can do the most about loneliness is the senior himself or herself. Physical and emotional health challenges can make taking that first step towards volunteerism seem insurmountable. Yet, the benefits of getting outside of yourself and realizing you have something to offer others are huge and life changing.

When we won’t get off the couch for our own good, we will do it for others. If you are an isolated human of any age, the best option might just be to go volunteer and put your energy toward addressing the needs of another.

I googled “senior isolation” and “benefits of volunteering” for the latest arguments in favor of the latter. At www.aplaceformom.com, I found “20 Facts about Senior Isolation That Will Stun You,” posted on Nov 15, 2019 by Sarah Stevenson. These were frightening until I got to No. 17: “Volunteering can reduce social isolation and loneliness in seniors.” Jackpot! It turns out that when we give and help others, we receive a substantial amount in return

Leisurecare.com’s Senior Living Blog had lots to say about the benefits of volunteering:

  • Volunteering can help protect our mental and physical health, reduce stress, combat depression and provide a sense of purpose.
  • Volunteering helps you connect to your community and make new friends. It can increase you social and relationship skills in a world where many spend too much time staring at a screen.
  • Volunteering can counteract the effects of stress, anger, and anxiety, combat depression, increase self-confidence and even make you happy.

Any amount of volunteerism can do the trick.  It doesn’t even have to be an organized effort. Even random acts of kindness designed to benefit others can provide us with the “volunteer boost.” Volunteering can be addictive — probably one of the healthiest addictions there are.

According to a study done by the Corporation for National and Community Service, adults over age 60 who volunteer reported higher levels of well-being and lower disability than those who did not volunteer. In addition to preventing isolation and reducing symptoms of depression, one study found that volunteering can make you feel like you have more time and money.

A study by Wharton College found that people who volunteer feel more useful, capable and confident, feeling like they can easily accomplish future tasks. Even though volunteering means they have less time, those that volunteer actually feel like they have more time. The same held true for those that donate more financially. According to the study, “Happier people give more and giving makes people happier, such that happiness and giving may operate in a positive feedback loop (with happier people giving more, getting happier, and giving even more.)”

Maintaining physical exercise and an active lifestyle can prevent many injuries and diseases. As the dementia epidemic grows, researchers have a growing focus on prevention methods. The National Institute on Aging thinks that participating in activities you enjoy, like volunteering, can improve longevity and mental health, and reduce the risk of dementia.

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