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Do good and do well: How volunteering can help you stay healthy

Christina Joseph By Christina Joseph

Senior Verna Bowen at Harlem Eat Up

If you call Verna Bowen at home, expect to leave a message. The 72-year-old Harlem resident has no time to sit still. She retired from international marketing nearly 20 years ago, but Verna is busier than ever. There’s bingo and Zumba at the senior center, plus stints as a poll worker and a monitor for civil service exams. What she finds most gratifying are the hours she spends visiting with Ms. Mary and Ms. Reena, who are both in their eighties and don’t get out much. “This is what keeps me young. And when I’m old and crotchety, someone will do this for me,” she jokes.

I met Verna at a Billie Holiday tribute concert at Manhattan’s famous Apollo Theater during Harlem Eat Up. The energetic and chatty senior (photo above), who was dressed to impress for a night on the town, stood out among the crowd of older adults treated to tickets by the Aetna Foundation and Citymeals on Wheels, which provides prepared food for aging New Yorkers. The organization depends on volunteers who, like Verna, want to help others in need.

Experts in senior health say more people should follow Verna’s path. Research shows that older adults who participate in community service enjoy cognitive and physical benefits. “Being engaged in your community, or giving back in some way, is really essential to a person’s overall health and well-being and sense of worth,” says James Firman, Ed.D., president and CEO of the nonprofit National Council on Aging (NCOA).

So if you want to increase your chances at living a longer and more fulfilling life, consider these three reasons why volunteering is good for your whole self.

1. You’ll feel valued.

You spent many years working, taking care of family, or both. You have numerous talents, and sharing them doesn’t have to stop just because you’re no longer collecting a paycheck or the kids are grown.

“Doing something that helps others can make life more rewarding,” says Firman, who started the NCOA’s Aging Mastery Program. Its series of classes ― focused on health, finance, relationships and personal growth ― is designed to teach older adults how to “master” the next phase of their lives.

If you miss working as part of a team and contributing something meaningful, community service may be just the thing. Some organizations to check out (see links at end of article):

  • Senior Corps. Taps the skills of older adults to address a range of community challenges.
  • VolunteerMatch. The site makes it easier for people to find good causes.
  • Points of Light. The world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service aids individuals and nonprofits.

When vetting projects, experts recommend you keep these things in mind:

  • Draw on your life experiences. A retired mason might lend a hand creating a path at a local community garden.
  • Step out of your comfort zone. Even if you don’t have children or grandchildren, sign up to be a foster grandparent.
  • Commit to a routine so you stay engaged.

Find out more secrets to enjoying a healthy retirement.

2. You’ll meet new friends.

Many older adults become isolated once they stop working. Volunteering reverses that, getting you out of the house and actively engaged with neighbors, children or local organizations. Research shows that maintaining your health as you age depends in part on remaining social. Verna says it’s not just the elder ladies who appreciate her visits; it’s a mutual admiration club. “Ms. Mary has a framed certificate on her wall. It’s her GED. She got it at 86. Can you believe it?” she exclaims. And Verna loves hearing Ms. Mary and Ms. Reena tell their old stories.

Richard Morycz, associate professor of psychiatry, medicine and social work at the University of Pittsburgh, agrees that relationships are incredibly important for older adults. “You can have family and friends located all over the world that you keep in contact with through Facebook, email, texting and phones calls. But there is absolutely nothing that beats the value of face-to-face interaction,” he says. “The nice thing about volunteering is it gives you a chance to interact in person.”

3. You’ll stay healthy longer.

We’re living longer, so why not make good use of our time? Studies show that volunteering…

  • Reverses diminishing brain function
  • Reduces depression
  • Slows physical decline  

Even if you experience common age-related complaints or a chronic health condition, you can still find ways to contribute. In fact, experts encourage it. “You are not thinking of yourself” when you’re busy helping others, says Morycz. “You’re not thinking of how you are in discomfort with arthritis; you are trying to be helpful to other people. That keeps you in the present and helps you look to the future.”

Morycz, who also serves on the board of directors of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Aging Institute, points to one of his patients who can’t stand up straight because of osteoarthritis. She sits in a chair at the local senior daycare center and folds towels and dishcloths as they come out of the dryer. Even though she has advanced degrees and is well-traveled, he says, “she feels good about herself because she can be helpful to others.”

If you think that cognitive function improves with any activity, think again. “It’s about making your environment more stimulating,” Morycz says. He and Firman both believe that successful aging means living a purposeful life. “That’s why we are here on earth, to be useful, to help people,” says Firman.

Discover other ways you can be social and keep your brain young.

If you have the opportunity to help others and help ourselves, how can you pass that up? “All too often, older adults are vulnerable to loneliness. Volunteering lets them make meaningful connections in their community while lowering their risk of health problems and dementia,” says Garth Graham, MD, MPH, president of the Aetna Foundation. “It’s no exaggeration to say that volunteering is good for the mind, body and soul.”

Resources mentioned in this article:

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About the author

Christina Joseph is a veteran editor and writer from New Jersey who still loves to read the old-fashioned newspaper. She’s raising two fruit-and-veggie loving daughters to balance all the treats Grandma sends their way. Christina’s health goal is to resume her workout routine after being sidelined by injuries.

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