Every Tuesday, Youville resident “Mary” volunteers at a local soup kitchen. She and her fellow volunteers spend three hours preparing meals for the homeless. This weekly routine is rich with personal history for Mary. She has made and maintained many close friendships through her volunteer work, some of whom she has worked with for 20 years. Now in her 80s, she still looks forward to seeing her friends at the soup kitchen and making a positive difference in the lives of so many.
For Mary, community service is rooted in her church upbringing. She has never thought twice about serving others. In addition to her work in the soup kitchen, she participates regularly in volunteer activities at Youville and elsewhere in the community. She may not be paid for her service, but she believes the benefits she receives from her volunteer work are inestimable. She attributes her active service with a sense of empowerment and purpose in her life. What Mary may not know is that volunteerism can actually contribute to a host of health benefits.
Volunteering has been linked to increased longevity, improved mental wellness, relief from chronic pain and fewer hospital visits. Of all age groups surveyed across many studies seniors report the greatest health benefits.
Less Stress, Longer life
Our body releases the hormone oxytocin when we willingly enter a situation that makes us vulnerable, such as offering help to others. Not only does this hormone disrupt stress so that we can perform selfless acts, but it also helps our cells store nutrients and repair themselves. Some researchers believe this is why senior volunteers report reductions in stress. When we are less stressed out, we reduce our risk for heart disease. One study found that seniors who volunteered with at least two organizations over the course of a year had healthier hearts and 44% lower mortality rate than their non-volunteering peers.
According to Dr. Stephen Post, an expert on altruism and the brain, just thinking about helping others causes our brains to release dopamine– a neurotransmitter associated with elevated mood. Studies have confirmed that volunteers over the age of 65 experience less depression than non-
volunteering seniors. A major reason seems to be that volunteering can help us maintain social connections and a meaningful role in our community after retirement.
Helping yourself by helping others
In some cases, we can treat our own ailments simply by reaching out to others with the same ailment. This is known as “helper’s therapy principle,” and there is plenty of data to support it. Here are just a few examples:
• A 2002 study found that sufferers of chronic pain reported relief from their symptoms when
they volunteered with fellow sufferers. Meanwhile, the sufferers receiving support from
the volunteers reported no alleviation of pain. In this case, the mere act of reaching out to others
was the most effective pain-reducer.
• According to a review of research published by the National
Corporation for Community Service, recovering alcoholics who
volunteer with other alcoholics experience less symptoms of
depression and greater odds of staying sober.
The data is clear: volunteering has significant health benefits. But how frequently must one volunteer to reap these benefits?
One extensive survey found that seniors need to volunteer at least 100 hours a year– or about two hours a week– to experience health benefits. Those who volunteered at or above the 100-hour level showed the most significant health benefits, while those who
volunteered beneath the 100-hour threshold showed little improvement in health. The takeaway: be a regular, not a sporadic volunteer, and you will maximize the benefits to yourself and to your community!
If you would like to start giving back, the best approach is to first think about volunteering for a cause that is of special personal interest to you. Try your local senior center, church, library or public school to find volunteer opportunities. Another option is to contact the RSVP program sponsored by Senior Corps, a federal organization whose mission is to match seniors with community service opportunities. Through RSVP, you have choice over how many hours you volunteer and what kinds of skills you put to use. For more information on RSVP opportunities in the Greater Boston area, visit their web site at www.cityofboston.gov/elderly/retired.asp or call Kelley Stout, RSVP Director at (617) 635-1794.
“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.