Volunteering 101: Opportunities and Benefits for Older Adults

When most people think about volunteering, what comes to mind are opportunities for young adults to work with children, teens, or senior citizens in different settings. Maybe you think about volunteering in a nursing home, or about putting time in at a local school or sports organization to help shape today’s youth.

Often overlooked – or at least not top of mind for most people – are the abundant opportunities that exist for older adults to devote their time for the benefit of others. But it’s not just the people served by an organization or volunteer effort who benefit; older adults who spend time volunteering reap tremendous rewards from the experience, as well. Here’s a look at the volunteer opportunities that exist for older adults and how seniors can benefit from getting involved in community efforts.

Reasons for seniors to volunteer their time Senior volunteers

Older adults who have entered retirement feel compelled to do something that allows them to contribute, making a valuable contribution to society. Most of us spend many years working long hours, and while retirement should be a welcome reprieve, many older adults are hard-wired to set and work towards goals. Volunteering can help fill the gap that’s left when seniors retire from their careers. Among the many other benefits of volunteering for older adults include:

  • Easing the generational gap – Many young people spend more time volunteering today, whether due to more rigorous requirements for graduating high school or college or a simple desire to help others. This means that seniors who choose to volunteer have the opportunity to work alongside individuals from different generations, allowing them to share perspectives and gain an appreciation for those who are younger or older than us.
  • Exercise for the body and mind – Volunteering doesn’t always involve physical activity, but it often does, and it almost always entails using your brain. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Research has suggested that combining good nutrition with mental, social and physical activities may have a greater benefit in maintaining or improving brain health than any single activity. At the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® 2014, a two-year clinical trial of older adults at risk for cognitive impairment showed that a combination of physical activity, nutritional guidance, cognitive training, social activities and management of heart health risk factors slowed cognitive decline.”
  • Socialization and relationship skills – Volunteering provides ample opportunity to interact with other people who share similar interests. The increased socialization alone is beneficial for older adults, but especially for those who are otherwise shy and find it difficult to make new friends. Because volunteering provides a common ground on which to build the foundation of a relationship, this activity can actually help you refine your relationship skills.
  • Self-confidence and self-purpose – Those who have retired from their career, or have lost a spouse, can find themselves lacking a sense of self-purpose. Volunteering provides a reason to get out of bed each morning – other people (or animals, or perhaps the environment) are relying on you, after all. This can also help seniors increase their self-confidence, particularly should you discover a new skill that you never knew you had.
  • Increased vitality and lower mortality rates – An August 2013 article in BMC Public Health reviewed 40 studies examining the health benefits of volunteering. Among a number of psychosocial benefits, the review found that “helping others on a regular basis — like serving food in a soup kitchen or reading to the blind— can reduce early mortality rates by 22%, compared to those in people who don’t participate in such activities,” according to an article in TIME magazine reflecting on the study’s findings.

These are just a few of the ways seniors benefit from volunteering. But how do seniors go about discovering volunteer opportunities in support of causes that matter to them and with organizations and efforts that are local to them?

How to find worthy volunteer opportunities

VolunteerMatch

There are several organizations dedicated to matching older adults with volunteer opportunities that are both worthy of contributions and are a good fit for the individual volunteer’s skills and interests. RetiredBrains.com offers an excellent list outlining many such avenues for finding local volunteer opportunities, such as:

  • AARP’s Volunteer Resource Center – Simply fill out some basic information, along with your interests and availability, and AARP will get in touch with volunteer opportunities that match your interests.
  • SeniorCorps – Part of the Corporation for National & Community Service, SeniorCorps connects today’s older adults (age 55+) “with the people and organizations that need them most.” This service helps seniors become mentors, coaches, or companions to individuals or families in need, or helps them find ways to put their skills and talents to use to benefit community services and organizations.
  • Idealist.org Volunteer Resource Center – Idealist.org is a “starting place for learning more about and finding great volunteer opportunities around the globe—whether you’re looking to get involved in your own neighborhood or thousands of miles (or kilometers) away.” Users can search for volunteer opportunities using a search tool similar to a job search, or browse a variety of helpful articles about volunteering. A quick search for volunteer opportunities in Seattle, Washington, for instance (at the time of this writing), reveals opportunities for volunteers at the Woodland Park Zoo, opportunities for volunteers to help the United Way fight poverty, tutoring opportunities, and even be a Social Media Wizard for the Rainier Valley Food Bank.
  • VolunteerMatch.org – Another search platform that allows you to find volunteer opportunities near  you, VolunteerMatch.org lets you search by the criteria that you find most important, such as location, to find the perfect way for you to get involved.

Get in touch with local organizations that matter to you

Speaking of what matters most to you, most older adults have an organization that is close to their heart for one reason or another. If a parent suffered from Alzheimer’s disease or a loved one lost their battle with cancer, you might donate to the Alzheimer’s Association or the American Cancer Society. There are many such organizations, and most people have at least one person they love who has been impacted by a disease like Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, or any one of the many chronic conditions that plague humanity.

You’ve probably heard of, or maybe even been involved with, events like The Walk to End Alzheimer’s or the Relay for Life. Organizations like these hold major fundraising events at least annually, often more frequently, and have plenty of ways for people of all ages to contribute. The best way to find out how you can help is to visit the websites of national organizations and get in touch with the director or fundraising coordinator at your local chapter.

Walk to End Alzheimer's

You can find a helpful list of these organizations at Lifeline Chaplaincy, and Medline Plus maintains a pretty substantial list of many health-related organizations, including the associations dedicated to raising funds for research to prevent and cure disease, such as:

Don’t limit yourself to health-related associations, though. If you have other interests, find out what organizations in your area do related work, reach out and ask about the ways you can lend your expertise or get involved. Many seniors enjoy volunteering for their local Meals on Wheels program, for example, or a local Boy Scouts of America group. If you love animals, you might find volunteer opportunities through the Animal Welfare Institute or a local rescue group that operates in your city, county, or state – some of which can be found using PetFinder’s Animal Welfare Groups search.

Opportunities to donate your time to worthy causes are usually abundant, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find your own way to help others. Carve out your own niche and do something meaningful that matters to you.

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