Volunteering. It might be the last thing on your mind. Whether you’re a caregiver or a senior, the thought of finding a place for you or your loved one to volunteer might seem like just another thing to coordinate.
However, volunteering offers both physical and mental health benefits, especially to seniors. From lower blood pressure to preventing depression, helping others actually helps the helper, too.
And volunteering doesn’t have to be a big-time commitment or require juggling schedules. Many organizations offer at-home or virtual opportunities—and some places are specifically looking for seniors.
Benefits of volunteering
Volunteering impacts your mental and physical health in a number of ways:
- Volunteering increases happiness – A 2020 study done in the United Kingdom found that regular volunteering increased volunteers’ level of happiness. Volunteering will not only make someone else’s day; it can also improve yours.
- Volunteering provides a sense of purpose – With retirement comes a big change in daily habits and activities. This can sometimes lead to a loss of purpose in older people. Regular volunteering changes that. One study found, “Being a formal volunteer was associated with more positive effect and moderated the negative effect of having more major role-identity absences on respondents’ feelings of purpose in life.”
- Volunteering can lower blood pressure – Volunteering doesn’t just improve your mental outlook; it can have real, physical benefits as well. Research shows that people who volunteer more than 200 hours each year are less likely to develop hypertension.
- Volunteering has been linked to longer life – While volunteering alone may not add extra years, one study found that people who volunteer do live longer—as long as they volunteer for altruistic motives. This was especially true of people who volunteered more frequently and for longer periods of time.
Volunteering can ward off depression – Some seniors can struggle with depression, but research shows that formal volunteering can work as an antidote to depressive episodes. Another study found that, “Volunteer work improves access to social and psychological resources, which are known to counter negative moods such as depression and anxiety.” This research found an especially strong link between volunteering and reduced depression in people 65 and older.
Anyone can volunteer
As we age, physical challenges can get in the way of doing the things we love to do, but when it comes to volunteering, there’s plenty of opportunities that can fit any situation.
If you want to become a volunteer, check out some of these great options:
- Work with kids – If you love working with kids, give your local school district a call or check out their website. Many districts have a program specifically aimed at pairing older adults with opportunities within the district. Your local YMCA, Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, or mentoring programs like Boys and Girls Clubs are also great places to start looking for volunteer opportunities that involve kids.
- Share your expertise – Just because your loved one is retired doesn’t mean they can’t share their skills with others. See if they can offer to teach a class at your local library, church or senior center to make use of their expertise. For example, if your loved one used to be an accountant, many libraries look for people to offer free tax help during tax season. Or if they know how to sew, they could teach classes at the library or community center.
- Give animals some love – Animal rescues and shelters run on volunteers. If you love our furry friends, consider helping out at your local rescue or shelter. They’re always looking for people to help give their residents some exercise and love.
- Feed the hungry – Many charities that feed people need help not only with serving food but often behind the scenes. Check with organizations like Harvesters to see what kind of volunteer opportunities are available.
- Protect the environment – If keeping the earth clean and healthy is your passion, look for volunteer opportunities with organizations like Sierra Club or the National Audubon Society. If you want a more in-depth study of environmental issues and how you can help, check out Cornell University’s Retirees in Service to the Environment program.
- Engage your faith – Most faith-based communities have plenty of volunteering opportunities both inside and outside the community. Check out your local place of worship to see if they have any needs you or your loved one can fill. Larger faith-based organizations like The Salvation Army or a local food pantry are also always looking for volunteers.
If you don’t see an option that suits your needs in this list, check out AARP’s Create the Good website where you can search for volunteer needs near you.
If you’re not able to get out and about to volunteer, don’t worry, plenty of options are still available to you.
Virtual volunteering allows seniors who are homebound or unable to perform physical labor to still share their talents with organizations that need them. Opportunities range from editing online maps to making things like baby blankets at home to being a child advocate. Some virtual opportunities, like Storiitime, are looking specifically for seniors.
Don’t let mobility issues or lack of transportation keep you from enjoying the benefits of giving to others. Virtual volunteering is the perfect way to help others while also reaping the mental and physical health benefits of volunteering.
Volunteering benefits everyone
If you’ve got some extra time on your hands and are looking for a useful way to spend it – or if you want to explore how your loved one can find better health and socialization – find a place to volunteer—whether in person or online. You won’t just be helping others. You’ll be investing in your own mental and physical well-being.
As Charles Dickens once said, “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”