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The Hidden Value of Volunteering

Society enjoys an estimated $19 billion boost that enhances the lives and well-being of millions at every level. It doesn’t cost the taxpayer a dime.  It opens career doors.  It improves the quality of life for the giver and the recipient.  And it’s free. What is it?  Volunteering.

To be honest, volunteers add so much value to our lives and our world it seems that just giving them a month (April) isn’t enough.  (And COVID is not barrier to volunteering – visit here to find plenty of ways to be a virtual volunteer.) Organizations and the people they serve benefit directly from volunteers, but what’s surprising is the hidden value of volunteering….to the volunteers. Volunteering engenders better health, improved quality of life, and better cognitive function for volunteers. They get as much benefit as they give…or even more:  sometimes volunteering opens doors.

Volunteering into a new career

Fiona Adams, who now leads the health and wellness programming at Senior Planet, got her start there in 2016 as a volunteer helping participants at the gym during a Senior Planet fitness class. “I believe that serving others is important and decided to leave my career in corporate American to work with older people after caring for my mom for almost 10 years,” Adams says.

Our elders have so much to offer and they deserve support. It’s so gratifying to now lead the wellness program at Senior Planet after starting as a volunteer.  Our classes are helping our people connect, live healthier lives and have lots of fun doing it!” (Stay tuned for a special Fitness Day she has planned later in May).

Retirement? What retirement?

For Senior Planet volunteer Barbara Lewers (pictured at top), volunteering is almost second nature. “I came to Senior Planet to sign up as a member; I walked out as a signed-up volunteer and a member,” she recalls with a laugh.

Barbara has volunteered for several organizations since 2009, a year after her retirement as Director of Advertising Services for the Direct Marketing Association. Beginning at Visions, an organization offering services for the blind and visually impaired, Barbara visited a man needing “eyes” to read his mail, including bills, and other visual assist. “I looked forward to seeing him weekly,” Barbara says. “We developed a nice friendship over the four years I visited him.” Barbara also worked with a different New York City organization before joining – and volunteering – at Senior Planet’s West 25th Street New York City location.

A Special Experience

“It always felt good being at the Center,” says Lewers, who greeted members as they arrived, answered questions and was generally available for “whatever”. She enjoyed watching as new classes began, coming to know the teachers and the member-students.

Now with the NYC Senior Planet Center still closed due to Covid, she has developed a new appreciation of the benefits of volunteering. Although she’s a virtual volunteer for Senior Planet, it’s not quite the same. “I really miss the family feeling and seeing the people,”’ she says. “When you ‘touch’ someone, you feel good.”

Research backs it up

Research supports Lewer’s feel-good experience.  A study of 1,200 Senior Corps volunteers showed that 32 percent in good health when they began volunteering for a project reported even better health 24 months later. In addition, some 78 percent of volunteers reporting five or more symptoms of depression at the start of their volunteer experience felt less depressed two years later.

In Canada, a comprehensive review of 74 studies of the health impact of volunteering showed that it’s consistently associated with better overall health and fewer functional limitations. Nicole Anderson, PhD, a dementia and geriatric care researcher, says there is strong evidence that volunteering is associated with a longer lifespan. (The ‘sweet spot” is two or three hours a week, 100 hours a year.)

From “Whoopie!” to “Now what?”

It makes sense that this would be the case. On retirement day two things vanish: daily interaction with colleagues and a clear-cut purpose and structure that informed one’s life for decades. Within months, weeks, or even days, the initial “Whoopee! I’m free!” high can dwindle down to a “Now what?” depression.

Smart retirees figure out quickly that there’s a great, life-enhancing choice answering the Now what​? question. As Barbara Lewers did, they check out volunteer opportunities that suit their interests and abilities.

Where to start

You can start by considering the things you like to do and researching organizations (online or locally) where there are opportunities.  You could also contact organizations that help finding volunteer work near you.

  • VolunteerMatch is the Web’s largest volunteer engagement network.
  • Points of Light is a global network covering 250 cities and 37 countries.
  • Idealist.org lets you enter your skill or interest and location to find volunteer opportunities in your area and nearby cities.

 

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