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Volunteering Can Improve Your Health and Research Proves it

Retired freelance writer and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist, Bruce Horovitz, age 67, had a surprise at his annual physical with his physician – his cholesterol was down and so was his weight. His blood pressure was that of a swimmer and the blood tests turned up no red flags at all. “What are you doing differently?” his doctor asked, somewhat incredulously. Horovitz’s answer may surprise you: “I’m volunteering more and spending less time in my office and more time doing some good with like-minded people.”

Research bears this out. “The health benefits for older volunteers are mind-blowing,” said Paul Irving, Chairman for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute at the University of Southern California. A study published in Daedalus, an academic journal by MIT Press for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, concluded that older volunteers had reduced risk of hypertension, delayed physical disability, enhanced cognition and lower mortality.

Horovitz admits that volunteers share “a little secret. We may start volunteering to help others,” he says, “but we stick with it for our own good, emotionally and physically.” Among a number of places, Horovitz volunteers at the homeless shelter where he said he hits his target heart rate packing 50 sack lunches in an hour to the beat of Motown music. And at a food bank, he could feel the physical and emotional uplift of human contact while distributing hundreds of gallons of milk and dozens of cartons of eggs during his three-hour shifts.

Alan Rozanski, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, has reviewed ten studies over the past 15 years that included more than 130,000 participants. All of them, he said, showed that partaking in activities with purpose – such as volunteering – reduced the risk of cardiovascular events and often resulted in a longer life for older people.

Discovering organizations that help others, whether they are young children or older adults, can start you on a path that improves your overall health but also contributes to feelings of purpose and fulfillment. Senior Corps is an umbrella organization for the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion programs run by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

For over two years, researchers gathered data from more than 1,200 Foster Grandparents, who are tutors and mentors to at-risk kids, and Senior Companion volunteers who help older homebound adults maintain independence through daily living tasks like driving to the supermarket and alerting doctors and family members to potential problems.

This is what they learned: 88 percent who described a lack of companionship before volunteering reported a decrease in feelings of isolation after two years. 84 percent reported improved or stable health after two years of volunteering. One 70-year-old Foster Grandparent volunteer stated, “I’m not depressed anymore. My blood pressure has come down; my blood work is normal and my cholesterol is down.”

Programs like these and those who volunteer for them often report a reduction in depression and loneliness because they feel a sense of connectedness and a renewed feeling of purpose.

Similar research has also identified a number benefits of volunteering that you may not expect:

  • Volunteering makes you feel like you have more time and is a similar phenomenon to those who donate to charity and feel wealthier as a result.
  • You have the opportunity to develop new skills.
  • Volunteering makes you feel more love. The relationship between volunteering and the measure of happiness showed the more people volunteered, the happier they were. It builds empathy, strengthens social bonds and makes you smile.

So, how does one start to volunteer? Where does one find organizations that need individuals to help with their missions? There are many Beacon Hill residents who volunteer for a great number of organizations throughout the area – from neighborhood churches to local food pantries to cultural and arts organizations. And volunteers can help in a variety of ways, including serving on an organization’s board of directors.

Finding the organization that inspires you to get involved is a little like dating – it’s a search for the right match. It provides an opportunity to learn about a nonprofit’s mission and to see how it really operates. Most important, though, is that you can discover whether the nonprofit’s mission really matters to you.

Something that seems tailor-made for grandparents is to introduce volunteering to your grandchildren. Not only do you reap the benefits outlined earlier, but it promotes family volunteering and service – a great way to pass on the values that matter most to you and a meaningful way to spend time together.

Some may be reluctant thinking that we should protect our children from sadness and from those who have difficulties in life, but by “protecting” them you also rob them of the chance to develop fundamental relationship skills and to care about others.

It will be more meaningful for your grandchildren if you tap into something they are already interested in. Do they love animals or prefer being outdoors? Give them a choice: “Would you rather help me make peanut butter sandwiches at a shelter, or do puzzles with residents at an assisted living community, or help me deliver Meals on Wheels?”

Be sure to call the organization where you’d like to volunteer and schedule a tour. Then discuss it with your grandchildren – preparing them for what they’ll see and hear and what you’ll do when you’re there. You’ll soon be on your way to building wonderful memories with your grandchildren and reaping health benefits along the way.

You belong here.

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Beacon Hill at Eastgate is a distinctive, not-for-profit retirement community located in Grand Rapids’ desirable Eastgate neighborhood.

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