Volunteering is a rewarding activity for older adults. It enhances wellbeing and contributes to an active lifestyle. Research shows that there are significant health benefits to be gained from volunteering. These benefits include enhanced physical, psychological and cognitive health.
Physical Health Benefits
Research has consistently found that physical health benefits are associated with volunteering. These findings indicate that volunteers report better physical health when compared to non-volunteers. This may or may not coincide with actual differences in reported health conditions. For example, Lum and Lightfoot (2005) found that while volunteering did not impact the number of health conditions diagnosed by physicians in the sample of individuals age 70 plus, it was associated with better self-reported health and physical functioning and lower mortality. Other research indicates that retirement tends to decrease the level of physical activity needed for a healthy lifestyle, so older adults need to find ways to be more active.
Psychological Health Benefits
The phrase “Helper’s high” was popularized by Dr. Allan Luks, who has been studying the health benefits of volunteering for more than 30 years. A study by Cornell University found that, after following close to 500 volunteers for 30 years, only 36% had had a major illness during this time, as compared to 52% of those who had not volunteered. This has been linked to the release of endorphins that commonly occurs when a person has a sense of being of value to another and this chemical change in the body has a calming effect, contributing to a positive outlook.
Mary Ann Murphy, Professor of Sociology and Social Work at the University of British Columbia, addresses the issue of isolation of seniors. “Social isolation may contribute to depression, grief, stress, anxiety, alcohol and medication misuse, a failure to seek help when it’s needed, and an extremely high elder suicide rate – particularly among older men.” She has found that volunteering can be one of the most empowering activities as it focuses on the strengths that one has to offer as opposed to needs.
In fact, volunteers report lower rates of stress, anxiety and depression and this translates into better psychological health. Research also demonstrates that volunteering provides a more defined sense of purpose and meaning, enhances quality of life and life satisfaction and is associated with higher levels of self-esteem as well as lower reports of loneliness and isolation. All of these emotional benefits may further benefit volunteers by helping them feel more social and connected as well as making them more attractive and desirable as social companions and friends.
Cognitive Health Benefits
Recent research indicates that volunteering is a good way to keep your brain sharp, active and healthy. Volunteering can help older adults stimulate their brains as they learn skills and gain new knowledge. Furthermore, a growing body of research indicates regular leisure and work-related activity that is cognitively, physically and socially stimulating is actually good for overall brain health. Volunteering is a leisure activity that provides stimulation in all of these areas.
As findings suggest that stimulation in two or more of these areas are more protective of brain health, more complex leisure pursuits such as challenging volunteer roles may best protect health. Based on this research, volunteer roles that require physical activity, engage your brain and provide social interaction are especially good for you because multiple area stimulation appears to reduce the risk of dementia and promote brain health.
Volunteering encourages healthy aging. It is a great way to stay active and engaged. The incredible health benefits of volunteering are compelling reasons to volunteer or maintain volunteer involvement.
There are over 200 volunteer centres across Canada that you can contact to find a volunteer opportunity that is right for you. You can visit our directory to find the centre nearest you. You can also visit the Pan-Canadian Youth Opportunities Platform.