By Linda Fodrini-Johnson, MA, MFT, CMC
Years ago I directed an Alzheimer’s Respite program and my most dedicated volunteer was a retired nurse with the patience of a saint. Ester was volunteering well into her 90’s and always took the most anxious participant to companion with for the entire afternoon. When I asked her why she volunteered she said it gave her life a sense of purpose, learning new skills, and since volunteering she has less pain from arthritis and feels healthier. She told me she was getting far more than she was giving.
The Corporation for National and Community Service, a Federal agency says that a quarter of those over the age of 55 volunteer. AARP’s Experience Corps reports that 97% of the volunteers they surveyed said that volunteering gives them a sense of purpose.
I have volunteered since I was a teenager (which reminds me to encourage children to do such as it builds character, empathy and opens doors to future careers). I am not sure how I stepped into this being a life value; however, my parents were both involved in Scouting and church activities. I can tell you that from personal experiences as an adult working with homeless organizations and mission trips (both domestic and international), that they have added to my sense of gratitude and expanded my awareness of how much “love” is valued in cultures and in people that have far less than most of us.
So, what are the benefits of volunteering?
Recent research is showing the health benefits of volunteering; it has been proven to lower mortality, depression, blood pressure, and heart disease while increasing greater functional abilities. Some of this can be attributed to being more active – which is one of the highest contributors to good health and positive aging. Additionally, volunteering also lowers stress which is a large factor in disease.
Another benefit of volunteering is increased social connections which are important as we age and friends and family move away or die. Social isolation increases mortality and health-related problems. Many volunteers report that these activities are fulfilling and increase a sense of happiness. Others say they have learned new skills and some have gone on to take part-time paying positions within the organization they had assignments.
One of the huge benefits of volunteering is that it give you a purpose in your travel. Whether it’s international or domestic – it can be a vacation with a purpose. My husband went to Nicaragua with other Rotary Club members this past October to put mechanical hands on those in need and was moved by the beauty and the culture of that country. His heart was touched by the lives changed with the new ability to write, draw or hold jobs.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review reported that volunteering your time makes you feel like you have more time. They also said that those who donate to charity feel wealthier than those who don’t.
How to find volunteer opportunities?
If you are not connected and looking for a place to volunteer there are hundreds of organizations in desperate needs for your time and skills. It is important to find a placement that gives you joy and a sense of purpose. Check out national websites that will match your skills with the needs in your local community. Two of those are www.VolunteerMatch.org and www.MovingWorlds.org (international opportunities). Belonging to a service club, like Rotary, is a way to expand your touch both locally and internationally – click here to find a club near you https://www.rotary.org/en/
The Village to Village Network (a grassroots organization created by seniors to assist all in continuing to live in their communities as they age), is developing in Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco counties. To find a Village nearby try the national search www.vtvnetwork.org or call our office and we can connect you to local Villages.
You will be enriched and enjoy the benefits of volunteering when you reach out to help others, even in the smallest of ways. What a better world we would have if we all volunteered just four hours a week!