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Volunteer to improve your health

Let’s say you’ve recently retired from a career that challenged and stretched you. Maybe you ended your formal work life some time ago? For most of us, there’s a period of time where we focus solely on personal indulgence, aka rest and relaxation.

But at some point, perhaps it’s two road trips and one long, chaotic visit with grandchildren later, a substantial number of retirees look for something that will challenge and stretch them in new ways. For some, there comes a moment when you recognize your “service gene” needs exercise.

Enter stage left: an opportunity to volunteer. Two 2017 studies done by the Center for National and Community Service found that older adults who maintained sustained volunteerism measurably improved their health and well-being. As one volunteer with senior companion programs suggested, volunteering “allows me to improve my own health. It helps me to get out more. [Other people’s] health issues make me more mindful of my own, motivating me to take initiative” on my own health.

Nearly half of the volunteers in one study who stayed with their program reported improved health and well-being, and 70 percent reported significant improvement in five or more symptoms of depression that they had initially indicated. That’s big — life-changing big.

If you’re still reading, and I have prompted you to think about doing something you have never done before, your options are wide open. Many 65-year-old retirees are going to live at least 20 years beyond their date of retirement, and ways to do that with community-based empathy and (may I say) sizzle are waiting to be snatched up. Volunteers (who do not get paid but are rewarded in so many other ways) put in time at animal rescue shelters, food pantries, local libraries, Habitat for Humanity and the Red Cross. Any of those speak possibilities to you? Ever thought about volunteering internationally (Peace Corps or Global Volunteer Network)?

Maybe you could find an organization that focuses on services to your age peers. You will find there many elders in far less good shape financially and physically than you are. Maybe you could lend them your expertise or a listening ear. Lots of folks seem inclined to volunteer with young children, but the exploding demographic of older adults might need you even more.

My husband and I launched a “small but mighty” all-volunteer nonprofit organization three years ago (www.agefriendlyinnovators.org). We are passionate about keeping low-income older adults safer at home. We use a simpler version of a framework for assistance developed at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. It’s called CAPABLE, Community Aging in Place — Better Living for Elders.

Like every helping organization on the planet, we are always looking for good volunteers who have that service gene and a little free time in which to make a big difference.

We ran into an expert on this topic of volunteering recently and asked her, “What’s the best way to recruit good people as volunteers?” She looked us in the eye and said, “Well, first of all, you don’t call them volunteers, you call them partners.”

Perfect.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.

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