The healthy benefits of volunteering.

When the subject of volunteering comes up, the focus of the conversation is usually the benefits to the recipient of the volunteer’s act of kindness. But what about the volunteers themselves? Do they benefit beyond feeling some degree of satisfaction from doing good deeds for others? Indeed they do, and probably in more ways than you imagined. In fact, in many cases the volunteer receives the larger portion of benefits—emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits, in particular. As author Trish Lockard points out: “Volunteering itself can be an act of self-care.”

So, who’s ready to give and receive benefits through volunteering? 

Filling a need for yourself and the community.

There are nearly as many reasons to volunteer as there are volunteer opportunities. One of the main reasons may be the subconscious need to feel wanted, to feel a sense of purpose. Years of scientific research conclude that there are health benefits for volunteers themselves. The National Institutes of Health reports that the act of volunteering can result in a significant improvement in mental and physical health. This is especially true of people of retirement age, those who live in retirement communities or assisted living facilities, and those who find themselves bored, unfulfilled and/or lonely. 

If this sounds like you or someone you love who is living in a senior living community, let’s look at ways to give back to the community. First, we’ll examine the benefits that volunteering offers—for the volunteers themselves—and then we’ll look at ways to determine what volunteer opportunities promise the most benefits.

Top benefits of volunteering. 

  • Stress reduction. Focusing on the needs of others is an ideal way to offset any negative feelings you may be experiencing, including anger, anxiety, and stress. It’s difficult to dwell on your problems when you’re helping others with greater issues than your own. 
  • Greater happiness. A 2020 United Kingdom study reported that people who regularly volunteer were generally more satisfied with their lives. They also rated their own health, including their mental health, as better compared to non-volunteers. In fact, research on the brain has proven that when people volunteer by giving either money or time, their mesolimbic system—the portion of the brain responsible for feelings of reward—is triggered and the brain releases feel-good chemicals that spur the volunteer to perform more kind acts. You can literally get a buzz from doing something nice for others!
  • Confidence boost. Most volunteering roles present an opportunity to develop confidence and self-esteem. As a volunteer, your sense of pride and identity can be enhanced. And the better you feel about yourself, the more positive you’ll feel about your future. 
  • Increased socialization. Loneliness and social isolation can lead to significant health risks, and older adults are at a higher risk because they’re more likely to live alone. Volunteering is a great way to meet like-minded people, and working together to bring about a change is a great way to bond with others.
  • Reduced risk of dementia. Volunteering may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. How? According to research, engaging in social service—like volunteering—improves elasticity in the brain. As we age, volunteering may help us maintain those connections in our brains that often break down in dementia patients.
  • Improved overall health and longevity. Having a healthy attitude about helping others can boost your immune system. This is according to research that shows people who volunteer are healthier and have a lower mortality rate than those who don’t volunteer. 

Where do you start? 

For many, volunteering is a source of great joy and satisfaction. But what if you can’t decide the best way to donate your time and talent? Just ask yourself two questions: 

  1. What do you love doing? Name three things you enjoy doing in your spare time. It can be anything: gardening, reading, golf, tennis, traveling, working on your classic car, woodworking, playing with your dog, hiking, riding bikes—whatever gives you the most joy.
  2. What changes or improvements would you like to see in this world? Solutions to the homeless problem? Better schools? Fewer people living in poverty? More affordable housing? More opportunities to enjoy the arts? A stronger, more connected community?

Now, see if you can draw a line between something you love and something you’d like to see change for the better. If you like reading, then consider becoming a tutor at your local elementary school or adult community center. If you like woodworking, try volunteering at your local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which builds houses for lower-income people. Love your dog? Animal shelters are always needing volunteers to walk dogs and/or help find them a safe home.

When you connect the dots, you’ve found a volunteer opportunity that will give you the most joy as well as other emotional and physical benefits. 

Remember: you don’t have to try changing the whole world at once. Just do your best to make a difference in your community or immediate surroundings. Start small. Helping loved ones with yardwork or organizing their garage or driving them to the store is just as satisfying a volunteer experience as anything. It doesn’t matter what you volunteer for as long as it’s something your heart is into. That’s really the key to a great volunteering experience. 

Nonprofits love volunteers!

There are countless nonprofit organizations that can benefit from your talents and energy, and you can benefit from the joy of helping them accomplish their missions. If you love being there for people who are sick or homebound, your local hospitals always have a variety of volunteer positions, from serving as a candy striper to assisting at the front desk. And your local Meals on Wheels is always looking for people to deliver meals to the homebound.

Plymouth Place does, too!

At Plymouth Place, Independent Living residents stay active through many volunteer opportunities. One is our Prison Pen Pal Program, which allows residents to write letters to incarcerated men and women in local penal systems, encouraging them to stay hopeful.

We also offer many opportunities for non-residents to volunteer here on our campus. If you want to contribute your time and talents for the benefit of our assisted living residents, ways you can volunteer include:

  • Helping with special events
  • Serving as a life enrichment assistant
  • Making friendly room visits
  • Accompanying residents on walks and to events
  • Sharing talents (music, art, dance, language, computer or other specialty)
  • Playing billiards, Wii™ or cards with residents
  • Assisting with manicures/applying nail polish
  • Coordinating animal visits/pet care
  • Participating in cooking or gardening programs
  • Delivering mail

People of all ages have talents to contribute. If you’re interested in volunteering, time spent at Plymouth Place will be just as rewarding for you as the older adults you’ll spend time with.

Whatever way you choose to volunteer, knowing that you are making a difference, to any degree, can be the greatest feeling in the world.

Volunteering’s noble history.

Inspirational quotes from people throughout history who recognized the critical role that volunteering has in society. 

“The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.” — Oscar Wilde

“Wherever you turn, you can find someone who needs you. Even if it is a little thing, do something for which there is no pay but the privilege of doing it. Remember, you don’t live in the world all of your own.” — Albert Schweitzer

“Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace; a soul generated by love.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

“You can study government and politics in school, but the best way to really understand the process is to volunteer your time.” — Rob McKenna

“Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience, and just plain loving one another.” — Erma Bombeck

“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.” — Author Unknown