Edna and Robert are in their 70’s and recently moved from Wisconsin to a retirement home in Arizona, as the midwest winters were getting too difficult to handle, and most of their kids had relocated to various places around the country. They enjoyed their new community, but often found that they had more time on their hands than they had anticipated. They weren’t sure what to do until Edna saw an advertisement for volunteers. Now, Robert helps out at a local animal shelter, and Edna uses her background in teaching to tutor students online.
Volunteering is important work at any age, but it can be especially important for seniors, both for those they help and also for themselves. Although our culture can send the message that youth is more important than age, younger generations can benefit greatly from the wisdom and experience that seniors can offer. Volunteering also brings with it many benefits for us as we age, including:
• Providing opportunities for social interaction. As we’ve discussed in previous articles, social isolation can be a real threat as people age, and it’s important to maintain or develop social contacts to counteract the risks of isolation, which can include illness, anxiety, and depression. One study showed that 70% of seniors who experienced symptoms of depression saw improvement in those symptoms after volunteering.
• Providing the opportunity to learn new things. Do you find butterflies interesting? By volunteering at a butterfly pavilion, you could learn all about butterflies in a practical, hands-on way. Want to learn more about local history? Volunteer at a history museum.
• Providing opportunities to give back to our communities. Someone with decades of experience in accounting could provide help at tax time to senior and community centers and even residents of domestic violence shelters. Someone who spent years as an auto mechanic could teach a community class on the subject. Someone with years of life experience could mentor youth.
• Providing opportunities to stay physically active. Animal shelters often need volunteers to walk their dogs, and volunteering to help clean up a local park will keep you on your feet and moving.
One of the important things to remember is to start small. You don’t have to fly to the other side of the world to make an impact—although that’s certainly possible. You can make an impact in many small ways right in your own community, and in ways that fit your personal schedule. Let’s look at just a few of the many ways you can volunteer.
• Mentor youth. This can be done in a number of ways, from volunteering at a community youth center to being a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters or Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Volunteers with mobility issues can mentor or tutor kids online, like Edna does.
• Helping the homeless. This can take many forms, from working with community organizations to provide clothing and meals, to volunteering in homeless shelters, to working with Habitat for Humanity.
• Supporting a cause. Whether you want to volunteer to help elect your favorite political candidate or help keep the world a beautiful place or help find a cure for cancer, there are many worthy causes that need your help.
• Peace Corps. If you love traveling around the world, consider the Peace Corps. There is no upper age limit to service in the Peace Corps, though health issues may limit where you may be allowed to serve.
If you want to volunteer, but aren’t sure where to start or what type of volunteer work you might like to do, Senior Corps may be a good place to visit. Senior Corps connects people 55 and older with volunteer opportunities in their communities. Visit https://www.nationalservice.gov/programs/senior-corps to find out more.
Volunteering can be one of the most rewarding experiences a person can have, no matter what their age. Make no mistake—our society could not function without volunteers of all ages in all aspects of life. Among many things, volunteers keep our museums running, our parks and roadsides clean, and serve the most vulnerable members of our communities. No help is ever too small or insignificant. Even if “all” you do is knit a hat for a cancer patient who’s lost his or her hair, you have met a need and done wonderful work that will not be forgotten. So please consider sharing your talent and life experience with those in your community who need you.