How volunteering improves your well-being

There are many ways volunteering can make an impact on the world, from mentoring at-risk youths, to helping areas recover from natural disasters and providing education and job training to others. Beyond making a community a better place to live and helping those in need, volunteering has also been found to have health benefits for people who do service work. Volunteering in retirement could therefore lead to a serious boost in senior mental health and overall well-being.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 18.7 million adults in the U.S. contributed more than 3 billion hours of service work between 2008 and 2010. Of those adults, more than one-quarter were 55 or older. Of any other age group, older adults contribute more service hours than anyone else, living active lives and helping their communities.

Making connections
One of the biggest challenges when planning for senior retirement is determining how a retiree will spend his or her time. After leaving the workforce, many seniors find that they lose the connections they made through their job and end up working in a volunteer position or another part-time job to fill their time, stay busy and remain active. Volunteering offers many opportunities to make new connections that may have been lost during the transition into retirement.

Many seniors choose to move to a new state – perhaps one with more sunshine – and may be in need of a way to meet new people and create new relationships. Volunteering provides one of the best methods for meeting others and can be a great way to build friendships, as doing an activity with others can bring people together. Doing work within one's own community can also build strong ties to an area, which is important in a new place of residence.

Volunteering and aging
In studies by the Population Reference Bureau and the National Institute on Aging, a person's ability and decision to volunteer was found to be largely dependent on their health. So it is somewhat difficult to gauge the health benefits of someone doing service work, as a person may have decided to volunteer because they were healthy enough to help. However, it has been shown that volunteers tend to have higher self-esteem and personal control, which may encourage a person live a healthier lifestyle and make good decisions when it comes to personal well-being.

Additionally, volunteering allows a person to focus on helping others, putting their own physical and mental issues on the back burner. In other words, volunteering is a good distraction from personal problems and can actually improve a person's attitude about their own health. Volunteers may also be at a lower risk of developing depression, as they feel as if their actions are meaningful and matter.

"Volunteering increases psychological well-being in part because it leads people to feel that they have an important role in society and that their existence is important," said PRB researchers.

Memory care becomes more important throughout a person's life, and volunteering may be a way to keep a mind sharp through aging. While not all seniors will experience a decline in cognitive function, some may be at a higher risk to diseases such as dementia. Fortunately, the interactions, organization and coordination involved with volunteering can actually keep a person more alert and may enhance cognitive function through increased brain activity.

Perhaps most importantly, volunteering has been shown to increase a person's lifespan. Many studies have revealed that volunteers have an increased life expectancy.

How to get started
If you're looking to get involved in some kind of volunteering within your community, there are many opportunities out there. The first thing you should do to get started is think about what type of work you would like to do and what is motivating you to volunteer: Do you want to make new friends, give back to the community or help those who have been through a natural disaster?

Whatever reason you choose, you should seek out a volunteer position that is suited to your skills. For example, if you were a school teacher, you might find joy in tutoring or mentoring the community youth. Ask your friends and neighbors about volunteer opportunities in your community and look for positions through the Internet on sites such as and similar sites.

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Pete Blasi