Senior Volunteers are More Important Than Ever

April 15 – 21 is National Volunteer Week

Senior Crosswalk Volunteer

In these tough economic times, the budgets of service organizations must stretch farther than ever. Charitable donations are down, and 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 now rely more than ever on volunteers to help their programs succeed.

At the same time, many organizations report that their pool of volunteers is smaller as people are spending more time looking for work, some even taking second jobs to make ends meet.

Seniors Are Stepping Up

The good news is, help is arriving from an increased cadre of senior volunteers, many of them Baby Boomers who are now reaching retirement age. A recent study from SeniorCorps, the national program to match older adults with volunteer opportunities, reports that Boomers who are currently in their 50s volunteer at a higher rate than earlier generations did at that age, and there is no reason to think the trend will change. And though many Boomers are expected to retire at a later age—for personal and financial reasons—they are also likely to change the face of retirement by shifting to work with a smaller financial reward, but with more flexibility, and a greater sense of giving back.

Boomers aren't the only seniors who are taking on this challenge. Seniors of every age are finding ways to put their talents to good use. No matter what your age, consider the many rewards and benefits of volunteering.

Volunteers know that public service can be an important part of later life, and a major boost to healthy aging in several ways. Serving as a volunteer offers:

Continued Sense of Purpose. Did you know that gerontologists predict that depression is one of the greatest health challenges Boomers will face? While it's a sure bet that some rest and relaxation are on your retirement "to do" list, many retirees are surprised to discover that leaving work creates a "vocation gap" in later years. "After the initial flurry of golf games and sleeping in," said one former Air Force colonel, "I realized how much my self-image was tied up with my job." Volunteer service can produce a profound sense of achievement—often well beyond what our paid work offered.

Enhanced Satisfaction with Our Life's Legacy. One of our basic emotional "tasks" as we enter our older years is life review—taking stock of what we have accomplished, and seeking reassurance that the path we have taken through our world has made it a better place. No matter what your religious or philosophical beliefs, chances are good that you have gained the perspective to know that our families, communities, nation, human race and planet can only thrive if we work together. By offering a daily reminder that we can make a difference, volunteer service encourages an enhanced sense of satisfaction and well-being.

Healthier Body and Mind. Staying physically active is a major component of healthy aging—and retirement itself can lead to inactivity, offering the temptation to develop "couch potato" habits. The Corporation for National and Community Service recently released a report that examined over 30 different studies, showing that volunteers have greater longevity, higher functional ability, lower rates of depression and less incidence of heart disease. "This is good news for people who volunteer," said Robert Grimm, Director of the Corporation's Office of Research and Policy Development. "This research is particularly relevant to Baby Boomers, who are receiving as well as giving when they help others. Just two hours of volunteering a week can bring meaningful benefits to a person's body and mind."

Greater Social Connectedness. Growing older can also result in a loss of social context. At our retirement party, many of us say we will get together soon with our work friends—but somehow, we seldom get around to it. And at this stage of life, our children are grown, possibly moved to new communities. Maybe we ourselves have retired to a different state. Many seniors report a feeling of isolation—and did you know that current research demonstrates that spending time with others is as important as physical activity?

Serving as a volunteer helps fill this vital role for many seniors: it provides a context for human contact, for connecting with others in a sense of community and belonging. According to Dr. Stephen Post of Case Western Reserve University, “There is now a convergence of research leading to the conclusion that helping others makes people happier and healthier. So the word is out—it's good to be good. Science increasingly says so."

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge; copyright 2012, IlluminAge.