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Prevention, Self-Care, and Safety : Older Adults : Well-Being

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Volunteers Gain While They Give

Retirement years can be a time to do what you want to do rather than what you have to do. It's your chance to focus on the things that interest you. A lot of mature adults are finding they can do that—and help others—by volunteering.

Mature adults make up an enormous pool of knowledge, talent, experience, and expertise. Many find volunteering offers a way to use skills they gained through a lifetime. Volunteering can fulfill and satisfy them after the pressures and time demands of earning a living and raising a family have eased or even vanished.

"Utilizing their talents and skills to enrich the lives of others provides seniors the satisfaction of knowing they're making a difference," says Wanda Mitchell, assistant director of the in-home support program and volunteer services for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA).

More satisfaction

More than half of Americans older than age 50 say they plan to volunteer when they retire. Studies show the newly retired are looking for the same satisfaction they got from their careers.

Not only mental, but physical benefits come with the act of giving back. Older adults who volunteer report higher levels of well-being, research shows. People who give time to a volunteer activity tend to be healthier and happier. That's even more true if the activity helps others.

A 2000 East Carolina University study looked at the relationship between volunteering and well-being. The result? Older adult volunteers had greater increases in life satisfaction and greater positive changes in their perceived health than younger adult volunteers.

And a 2001 study at Vanderbilt University showed that, for people of any age, community volunteer work enhanced six aspects of well-being. That means greater happiness, better physical health, more life satisfaction, higher self-esteem, a greater sense of control over life, and less depression.

Many benefits

Volunteering can help you:

  • Take on new challenges

  • Keep your mind and body active

  • Meet new people

  • Put free time to good use

  • Gain new experience

  • Give back to the community

  • Provide a new perspective on problems

  • Have fun

It can be therapeutic, too, according to Pearl Graub, the PCA's director of professional services. "It's an effective method in the treatment of depression, which sometimes results from life changes like retirement, death of a spouse, or relocation," she says.

There is a broad range of activities for those who wish to volunteer, regardless of health or income.

What's important is to find opportunities that reflect your interests, call on your skills and capabilities, go with your lifestyle, and suit your personality. A teacher might become a mentor. An artist could give a course at a community center. An administrator might set up a fundraiser. A scholar could make a perfect museum guide. A people-oriented person might visit other seniors.

Older adults often learn of volunteer options through their places of worship, but any social network can point you toward volunteer choices. That includes civic or social clubs, unions, alumni organizations, sports clubs, and hobby groups.