BY ANICA WONG
IT’S HARD TO ARGUE WITH SCIENCE. According to several studies, people older than 60 who volunteer reported lower disability and higher levels of well-being relative to non-volunteers. The effects of volunteering on seniors’ health are greater than other factors, including education level, income and marriage status.
“We’ve found that oftentimes when older adults retire from paid work but don’t have something they are retiring ‘to,’ they begin to decline,” says Renae Perry, the director of programs at The Senior Source. “Having something that gives meaning to our lives as we age is important, and sharing the experience and wisdom of a lifetime has a great impact on the person giving, as well as those receiving.”
The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that 18.7 million older adults across the United States contributed about 3 billion hours of service between 2008 and 2010. Perry says The Senior Source had just over 4,000 volunteers in and around the Dallas area contribute their time last year. These volunteers included children, adults and seniors alike, who all volunteered in various capacities.
Older adults have so much expertise, experience and wisdom, and oftentimes after retirement, they just need a person or place to share their talents with. Some seniors who volunteer want to continue doing something they love. For others, it is a chance to engage with the world around them in an entirely new and exciting way.
“I’ve volunteered at the hospital for many years,” says Ann Parnell. I’ve really enjoyed meeting people, talking with them, and listening to their problems. Volunteering at Houston Medical in Warner Robins lights up my life—it’s not a job, it’s a privilege!”
There is an abundance of volunteer opportunities around the world. For those who are adventurous, the Peace Corps might be of interest. According to Kristina Edmunson, the deputy communications director of the Peace Corps, 7 percent of their volunteers are over the age of 50.
“Older Americans who serve as Peace Corps volunteers bring a wealth of knowledge, life experiences and existing skills to their Peace Corps project. Many volunteers become instant leaders in their new communities, helping to address some of the world’s most pressing problems,” says Edmunson
All Peace Corps volunteers, regardless of age, go through a medical application and screening process and then go on to serve a total of 27 months, which includes three months of training and 24 months of service. Edmunson says senior volunteers work in areas such as maternal health, environmental protection, HIV/AIDS prevention and more.
In 1966, at the age of 68, Lillian Carter, mother of President Carter, applied for the Peace Corps. After completing the usual psychiatric evaluation and training, she was sent to India where she worked at the Godrej Colony near Mumbai. She worked there for 21 months, during which she aided patients afflicted by leprosy. Emory University established the Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing in honor of the work she did in India. The Atlanta Regional Office of the Peace Corps has named an award in her honor for volunteers over 50 who make the biggest contribution.
For those who would rather opt for something closer to home, there are many volunteer opportunities.
“The gifts that older volunteers bring are flexibility and an intense humility,” says Sister Elizabeth of St. Peter Claver and Director of Daybreak, a day center for the homeless in Macon. “They are willing to share their expertise and professionalism in doing whatever needs to be done.” Senior centers, libraries and charitable thrift stores, typically offer volunteer positions that require a wide range of skills.
Volunteering that pairs seniors with their own grandchildren or other children can be a win-win. It’s great for the children to have these caring grandparent figures in their lives. Children can also bring joy to seniors.
Regardless of what type of volunteering seniors decide to do, the important thing is that they are volunteering. As the number of older adults continues to grow, the opportunities for them to spread their time and experience to others also rises.
“Seniors volunteering can also make the difference between a vibrant, healthy aging process and an isolated, lonely disengagement from the world around us,” says Perry.