Over the course of our lives, we feel a sense of purpose and pride for a variety of reasons, but most of them have to do with helping others. Whether we are parenting children, caring for aging parents, serving in a professional role, or fulfilling a philanthropic mission, we feel good when we are actively engaged in doing good work out in the world.
As we get older, it can feel like our worlds become a lot smaller. Opportunities to feel productive and useful start to dwindle. Kids move out, parents pass on, and we retire. Piece by piece, whole areas of our life are reshaped in a way that can—if we’re not careful—lead to social isolation and loneliness.
Older adults who find themselves in this position are often at a much greater risk for a variety of serious mental and physical health issues, including anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system.
Fortunately, there is a very effective way to counter the ill effects that come from feeling like you no longer have value in your community or society at large. And it’s something that helps others as well: volunteering.
Good Deeds Have Health Benefits
In 2015, The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) ran two studies to look at how two of their senior volunteer programs—Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions—affected the lives of elders who volunteered. The results speak for themselves:
- Almost two-thirds of Senior Corps volunteers indicated they felt less isolated, and 67% of those who had initially felt lacking in companionship felt that volunteering had improved their social connections.
- A full 70% of volunteers who began the program reporting five or more depression symptoms reported fewer symptoms after only one year in the program.
Based on these and other indications, it’s clear that volunteering is a valuable strategy for healthy aging. Senior Corps has more than 245,000 seniors engaged in its various volunteer programs. These programs offer the opportunity to help with a variety of jobs including tutoring, mentoring, teaching English to immigrants, victim assistance during natural disasters, and many other types of tasks.
The exact nature of the work is less important than the fact that these volunteer assignments give individuals a reason to leave the house, stay involved in the community, forge new friendships, practice old skills, and learn new ones.
Volunteer Opportunities Are Only a Click Away
There are a variety of organizations that can help you find volunteer opportunities.
Senior Corps is led by the CNCS and offers a broad range of services and resources. Their website describes the organization as “a network of national service programs for Americans 55 years and older, made up of three primary programs that each take a different approach to improving lives and fostering civic engagement. Senior Corps volunteers commit their time to address critical community needs including academic tutoring and mentoring, elderly care, disaster relief support, and more.” You can search their database for volunteer opportunities by state to see what is available in your area.
Volunteer Match is another site that isn’t specifically geared toward seniors, but which offers a location-based search for a wide variety of volunteer opportunities involving animals, children, communities, education, and more.
Idealist.org is another resource that allows those interested in helping out to search by location and opportunity type. The site also allows you to filter search results by additional criteria such as education and professional requirements, remote and on-site opportunities, etc.
It’s Never Too Late to Get Involved
We all want to be part of something. We all want to do our part. Being able to contribute makes us feel good and broadens our perspective on the world. It connects us to other people and communities.
One of the most tragic aspects of growing older is feeling like we have nothing left to give, that no one needs us. Volunteering is a wonderful way to reconnect with a sense of purpose, help others, and take a chance on beginning a whole new chapter of life.