Dear Rita: I am 74 years old with a lot of time on my hands. I was thinking of giving some of my free time on a volunteer basis. What do you think about that considering my age? — J.C., Oakland
Dear J.C.: What a wonderful idea! Our society is strengthened and enriched when all age groups volunteer. By getting involved in a cause that brings you passion, your life and experiences can bring value and knowledge to others, especially the younger generation. You also may bring more meaningful and rewarding experiences to your own life since volunteering in later life is related to improved well-being.
Nurturing the spirit of civic engagement is beneficial to society and to the volunteer. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 18.7 million older adults — more than one quarter of those over age 55 —contribute more than three billion hours of service to their communities per year. In fact, this age group volunteers more than any other age group.
This valuable service enhances the fabric of communities and translates into living an active life. There is growing evidence that older adults who volunteer have lower mortality rates and report fewer disabilities. Volunteers have increased physical, social and mental engagement, which benefits their quality of life. Older adults undergoing life stressors particularly benefit from volunteering interactions, as they end up less isolated and may gain a new sense of purpose.
According to recent research, 67 percent of those volunteers who lacked significant companionship experienced improved social connections. Another study showed that after two years, volunteers had reduced levels of depression and functional limitations, while a similar aged control group had increases in both categories.
Evidence is also beginning to accumulate on volunteering and benefits on cognitive health, although there are few studies on this topic. One study indicated memory and verbal fluency gains over a year of volunteering. These cognitive benefits were greatest in the first six months, flattening out after that. More studies are needed to investigate whether volunteering can mitigate dementia risk or delay its onset.
Volunteers have increased physical, social and mental engagement.
Research does suggest that when it comes to volunteering, “less is more,”or volunteer in moderation. There are reduced volunteering-related benefits tied to perceived stress. Two to three hours a week may be the best schedule for most older adults. A moderate amount of volunteering has been shown to be related to improved physical health: There is less hypertension and fewer hip fractures among older adults who volunteer when compared to their matched non-volunteering peers.
Now that you know the benefits of volunteering, how can you get involved? If you’re looking for government programs developed specifically for older volunteers, Senior Corps, managed by the Corporation for National and Community Service, may be a place to start. Senior Corps taps the skills, talents and experience of nearly a quarter of a million Americans aged 55 and older. Its three main programs are Foster Grandparents, in which volunteers serve as tutors and mentors to young people with special needs; RSVP Volunteers, who recruit and manage other volunteers, participate in environmental projects, mentor and tutor children, and respond to natural disasters; and Senior Companions, which helps frail seniors and other adults maintain independence primarily. Because Senior Corps tries to engage diverse older adults, including those who are low-income or have disabilities, it offers small stipends or reimbursements for transportation or other costs associated with volunteering.
There are also many local organizations that rely on volunteers. Examples are the Ombudsman program to fight for rights of seniors in long term facilities (aging.ca.gov/programs/ltcop/contacts); Meals on Wheels (americaletsdolunch.org); JFCS East Bay (jfcs-eastbay.org/getting-started); Mobility Matters (mobilitymatterscc.com); Caring Hands (johnmuirhealth.com/get-involved/volunteer-services/volunteer-caring-hands.html); and other friendly visiting programs. These and other opportunities can be found on VolunteerMatch.org.
There are so many things you could do! You can look into being a docent in a museum, give pro-bono legal help, or assist in an animal shelter. With an open heart, you will tap into your passion. In this new stage of life, you can bring innovation and celebration, along with new purpose and meaning.