Volunteering: A powerful prescription for good health

Could a purpose in life lead to longer, healthier lives? Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health research fellow Dr. Eric Kim and fellow researcher Sara Konrath seem to think so. The pair studied more than 7,000 Americans over age 50 and found those who did volunteer work “spent 38 percent fewer nights in the hospital” and took better care of themselves than non-volunteers. Other studies showed volunteers also enjoyed better health, more stamina and lower stress levels.

That’s good news for Ginger Jackson, an 80-year-old who lives and volunteers at Covenant Village of Turlock, a faith-based, not-for-profit continuing care retirement community. Jackson says sharing her time, talent and passion with others has always been a way of life. Better health is an added benefit she hadn’t considered.

“Volunteering gives me a sense of accomplishment,” says Jackson, who delivers mail to her fellow residents and teaches Bible and cooking classes. “If you keep active and focus on helping others, it is a reminder that you can contribute to your community at any age. There really are no excuses!”

The intangible benefits alone—such as pride, satisfaction and accomplishment—are worthwhile reasons to volunteer. Those who devote a considerable amount of time, about 100 hours per year, are most likely to exhibit positive health benefits, indicates the Corporation for National and Community Service. For seniors, that means more:

Physical benefits: In addition to fewer nights in the hospital, those who volunteer experience fewer chronic conditions, too. People who volunteer after a heart attack were less likely to experience familiar post-illness effects of depression and despair.

Emotional benefits: Volunteering builds empathy, strengthens social bonds and makes you feel more productive. Covenant Village resident and volunteer Stan Johnson says, “Everyone has something to give. It really helps you feel good to focus on helping other people.”

Shared wisdom: Younger generations benefit from the wealth of experience and knowledge older adults have acquired throughout their lifetime. Sharing that wisdom and expanding social circles provides older adults with a sense of purpose.

Spiritual purpose: For many, serving is part of a lifelong journey, one that brings personal satisfaction and fulfils a spiritual purpose.

Further, a study by the Assisted Living Federation of America, now called Argentum, found that seniors age 75 or older who were active physically, mentally, and socially were most likely to live past age 90. Researchers also found that active seniors lived an average of 5.4 years longer than their inactive peers.

“The research supports what we’ve long suspected,” says Covenant Village of Turlock Associate Executive Director Chuck Johnson. “Volunteering is a powerful prescription for good health.”

For older adults living at retirement communities, volunteer opportunities are plentiful. At Covenant Village, residents transport their peers to appointments and activities and lead classes; they sew dresses for orphans living in Africa; and they assemble care bags for the area homeless. Others venture outside of the community and volunteer at the police station or blood bank.

“Being a good neighbor in our community and within the city of Turlock is part of our mission as a faith-based organization,” says Johnson. “But it’s also part of our LifeConnect wellness partnership with residents. By providing opportunities for volunteer service, we’re helping residents improve their health and quality of life.”

For volunteer opportunities in Stanislaus County, visit VolunteerMatch.org, Stanislaus County, or check with the local library, area hospitals and nearby schools.

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