National Volunteer Month: How giving back boosts seniors' health

Sunrise Senior Living  |  April 10, 2017

April is National Volunteer Month, a time to show appreciation for volunteers, and hopefully inspire others to take up a worthy cause as well. 

While the people and organizations who rely on volunteers certainly benefit from the assistance, studies show that the volunteers themselves have much to gain from these experiences. From physical to mental health, participating in volunteering activities can be especially beneficial for seniors. 

The importance of socialization and activity for seniors
Aging brings on a number of lifestyle changes. You may have retired from your life-long career, lost members of your social circle and developed health conditions that effect you on a daily basis. As a result, it can be easy to become inactive, isolated and depressed. 

Regular physical activity is essential for maintaining a healthy body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise and two days of muscle-strengthening exercises each week for adults age 65 and over to stay fit. In doing so, you can build and sustain muscle mass to prevent injury, and delay the development of serious health ailments such as heart disease. 

"Socially isolated seniors are more likely to experience chronic stress."

Social interaction is also crucial for seniors' well being. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that socially isolated seniors are more likely to experience chronic stress and depression, as well develop conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.

You don't have to be completely alone to be lonely. Even if loved ones live nearby, having children and grandchildren who are at work or school all day, or friends who can't get out frequently can leave you on your own quite often. If you're faced with a great deal of free time and don't have many people around to spend it with, feelings of social isolation can set in quickly.

Volunteering can fill these needs
Signing up to volunteer with a local organization can alleviate many of these concerns. The Senior Citizens Bureau reports that regular volunteering can give seniors a sense of purpose you may start to miss when you're no longer working full time. By having something you can contribute to, you may feel more productive and useful, improving your self esteem.

Volunteering can also keep you more active. While some types of volunteering may inherently include a degree of exercise, such as working outdoors to beautify parks or helping to carry donated goods at a food bank, even desk jobs can keep you active by encouraging you to get up and out of the house more often. 

Working in these group settings also provides you with much-needed social interaction. You can develop new friendships and carry on conversations with other volunteers or members of the community that your organization is serving. 

While anyone could experience these mental, physical and social benefits from volunteering, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that older adults gained the most from these activities. The researchers discovered that volunteering didn't begin to make marked mental health improvements for people until they reached middle age, and had a more profound impact on older age groups

Helping kids in an after school program is a great way to volunteer. Helping kids in an after school program is a great way to volunteer.

Ways for seniors to volunteer
There are many ways that you can volunteer in your community, which allows you to find a cause that is especially meaningful to you or ties into your interests. Some examples include:

  • Religious organizations. If you're a member of a local religious group, you may opt to get involved at your place of worship. Most of these organizations rely on volunteers to help in their offices, plan social functions or do community outreach. 
  • Community projects. Your municipality may need volunteers to help out around the community by cleaning up parks, staffing events or even serving on a local committee board. 
  • The library. Your local library may have volunteer programs from everything to stocking shelves to working the check out counter to participating in reading programs for kids. 
  • Veterans organizations. If you or any of your loved ones is a veteran, you may feel especially drawn to helping out with local veterans groups to assist in sending care packages overseas or collecting donations that military families need. 
  • Schools. From being an afterschool program tutor to a lunch monitor to a classroom assistant, you could spend some time helping out at a local elementary school. 
  • Animal shelters. Animal rescues need volunteers to help walk dogs, work the offices or even just play with the pets to help them socialize. 
  • Food banks. You can give back to those most in need in your area by spending time sorting donations or serving meals at your local food bank.

There are a number of other ways you can stay active in your community as well. To get involved, you can search online for volunteer opportunities in your town or speak to members of local organizations you frequent. They'll be thrilled to have another set of helping hands, and you'll benefit from being involved and active in something that gives back to others. 

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