Giving Back

“What am I going to do when I retire?”
Today, more people than ever are asking that question. I’ve been an assisted living operator for the last sixteen years, and had the distinct pleasure to know thousands of active and vital seniors who’ve taken their interests well into their eighties and nineties. Bob crafts intricate doll house furniture; exact and tiny replicas in Pennsylvania Dutch, Colonial, Shaker and Queen Ann styles. Andy, well in to his eighties, has a drafting board in his studio apartment where he continues to design plumbing systems for new buildings. As a younger man, Nick, invented and patented a novel picture hanging device. Today, in his eighties, he manages the worldwide distribution of this product from his assisted living apartment. Reading clubs, bridge clubs, art clubs, and other specific interest groups are available to keep seniors engaged, but this column is about giving back.

Few can afford philanthropic giving, but everyone can give of their time. The volunteering options are endless. And volunteering brings very positive benefits. Health depends on engagement. To help people live healthier lives and modernize the health care system, we believe it is necessary to become even more active and responsible citizens as we age.

Giving back is good for you. Besides feeling good for doing something for others, a 2013 United Health Group study found that over three-quarters of people who volunteered felt physically healthier. In fact, most believed that volunteer work was great for their health. There is an even stronger connection between volunteering and mental/emotional health. Volunteers score better than non-volunteers on nine well-established measures of emotional wellbeing including personal independence, capacity for rich interpersonal relationships and overall satisfaction with life. Volunteering also improves mood and self-esteem. Remarkably, this study found that older individuals, especially those who suffer from multiple chronic conditionsÑfelt much better when volunteering.

The health physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral impacts of stress are well-documented; stress takes a toll. Volunteering helps manage stress. According to the United Health Group study, a majority of people say that volunteering lowers their stress levels. Volunteers are more likely than U.S. adults overall to report that they feel calm and peaceful most of the time, and that they had lots of energy most of the time. Giving back by volunteering, doing good for others, helps us to stress less. Less stress is a very important component of staying healthy.

In a similar Canadian study, 85% of Ontario volunteers rated their health as “good,” compared to 79% of non-volunteers. Compared to volunteers, non-volunteers reported “poor” health three times more often. Still other studies have shown a relationship between volunteering and increased self-esteem, with volunteers reporting both greater personal empowerment and better health. Doing good things for others may stimulate the release of endorphins linked to improve nervous and immune system health. Many people report a “high” from volunteering, similar to the good feelings that come from exercise. Others have found that volunteering fights depression. Helping others helps take your mind off your own problems and enables you to see the bigger picture. Once you see the difference you can make in another person’s life, your own problems seem smaller and more manageable.

Seven Great Reasons to Volunteer:

  1. Develop new skills. Gaining skills, knowledge and expertise are common side effects of volunteering. Giving your time to others brings you interesting and challenging opportunities that might not come along otherwise. An old dog can learn new tricks, and we can continue to grow.
  2. Make new and interesting social connections. Loneliness and boredom are common among retirees. Volunteering can relieve this sense of social isolation, reduce depression, and help fill empty hours in the day.
  3. Giving back to life. Doing something for the community you live in and returning the favor to those who have helped you are strong motivators. Everyone, rich or poor, takes from society, and volunteering is paying back. It’s gratitude in action.
  4. Explore and expand your known world. A volunteer is an explorer, growing and living a vital life.
  5. Put life in a new light. Life can be hard and when you’re feeling down, your problems can seem insurmountable. Seeing people in new situations can help you see your life in a new perspective.
  6. Feel needed and appreciated. Retirees can feel isolated and unneeded. When you volunteer, you realize just how needed you truly are.
  7. Know that you matter. Volunteers experience increased self-esteem and self-worth. Helping others makes you feel good about yourself. You’re doing something for someone that they couldn’t do for themselves.

Volunteers say that they have taken personal responsibility and control over their health. The studies show that volunteers, compared to non-volunteers consider themselves more knowledgeable about their health and chronic conditions. They are more likely to actively seek out information about their health. They discuss their health with their doctor more frequently than do non-volunteers. Volunteers are more engaged health care consumers. This is so important! Engaged people make better health care decisions. Better health care decisions result in better health.

In summary, the research has shown that the feelings you experience when helping others may be just as important to your health as exercise and a healthy diet. That smile from a child or thankful person shows you’re really making a difference in someone’s life.

And that’s the greatest feeling in the world. Let’s go!

Robin Avery is a Gerontologist, Consultant, Developer and Operator of assisted living communities, with a Masters Degree from The Naropa University. He can be reached at

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