Health & Wellness

Six Benefits of Volunteering

Research has shown that giving your time is good for you

By Wendy Haaf

Photo: iStock/Image Source.

Janice Kreider was born in a farmhouse in Ohio. “From an early age, I was outside doing things,”she says. “That’s good for children—and adults, too—but many children in the city don’t have much access to nature.”

So while the 75-year-old retired Vancouver librarian has plenty of friends and interests to keep her busy and engaged, she donates her time and skills to organizations such as the University of British Columbia’s Intergenerational Landed Learning Project, helping elementary school students discover the joys of being outdoors on a farm, growing vegetables, and learning about First Nations’treatment of the land.

Motivated in part by the strong ethic of service that’s integral to her faith as a Mennonite, in giving back, Kreider receives a great deal, from the chance to experience the wonder of the world through a child’s eyes and the opportunity to broaden her own world view to the simple pleasure of getting together with others.

Volunteering can be an opportunity both to hone existing skills and to gain new ones. Moreover, a growing body of evidence suggests that giving back also contributes to healthy aging and well-being in a variety of ways. Here are just a few reasons to consider volunteering.

It Benefits Your Brain
“Sometimes people believe that retirement should be like a holiday all the time, with no commitments, but that can be associated with a decrease in cognitive function,”observes Melanie Levasseur, an assistant professor at the University of Sherbrooke’s School of Rehabilitation and a researcher at the Research Centre on Aging at the University Institute of Geriatrics of Sherbrooke, in Quebec.

Volunteering, on the other hand, seems to have the opposite effect, according to Sylvie Belleville, a psychology professor at the University of Montreal and the research director at the Montreal University Institute of Geriatrics. Belleville cites as an example a US study in which older adults were paired with school-age children for whom they acted as mentors. “Mentoring had tremendous effects on memory, cognition, and attention,”she says.

Other studies have yielded similar results. “In one study that followed people over 14 years, volunteers had better cognitive functioning, but they also maintained function better than non-volunteers,”says Nicole Anderson, a senior scientist at Baycrest Health Sciences’s Rotman Research Institute in Toronto. “It’s exciting that there’s more objective evidence for the protective effect of volunteering on cognition.”

It Helps Keep You Healthy
“Not only do people who volunteer tend to report better health to begin with, but if followed over time, they continue to maintain that better health,”Anderson says, “whereas in non-volunteers, health tends to decline as a normal part of aging.”

Research backing such benefits continues to accumulate. For example, in a 2016 study that looked at the use of health-care resources over time in volunteers and non-volunteers aged 51 at the beginning of the study, “volunteers engaged in more proactive, preventive health care—they were more likely to see their doctor and to get health screenings, and they were less likely to spend time in hospital than non-volunteers,”Anderson says. “There’s also some evidence linking volunteering with better blood-pressure management.”

In another study, Anderson led a systematic review of 73 published studies and found that volunteering was linked with greater longevity and reductions in symptoms of depression. Health benefits peaked at roughly 100 hours annually—about two hours a week.

It Provides Purpose and Meaning
“Sometimes you lose your identity when you retire,”observes Bev Farrell, a therapeutic recreation specialist with the Third Age Outreach program at St. Joseph’s Health Care London (ON). “There’s research showing that older adult males have one of the highest suicide rates in the population because after they retire, they no longer have that purpose and meaning in their lives and feel lost.”Volunteering is one way of filling that gap and giving people a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

For volunteering to provide a sense of purpose, though, the cause has to be something relevant and meaningful to you, and your time and energy must be freely given and motivated at least in part by a desire to help others rather than by a sense of obligation or self-interest. “It has to be something the person wants to be doing and doesn’t feel forced to do,”Levasseur stresses.

On top of everything, multiple studies suggest that having a sense of meaning and purpose in later life is linked with a host of health benefits, including stronger grip strength and faster walking speed, both of which are yardsticks for physical function and risk for disability.

It Confers a Sense of Control
After developing a health problem, “people sometimes spiral into this learned helplessness, where they feel they can’t do for themselves and other people are helping them,”Farrell says. However, finding creative ways to give back using the skills and abilities you do have—say, by offering mentorship or support by phone if you’re unable to get out of the house—can act as an antidote.

“If people can’t control some of the things that are happening to them healthwise, they can nevertheless feel a sense of independence and control,”Farrell says. “They realize, Yes, I am worth something.”

A key finding of the systematic review Anderson led was that more vulnerable older adults, such as those with chronic health conditions, may benefit the most from volunteering. Unfortunately, however, Levasseur’s research found that when men lose some mobility or function, their social and community involvement declines, while women’s participation tends to persist despite such obstacles.

Farrell says that lending a hand can benefit even those with advanced dementia. “In long-term care, for example, having people help out with small tasks that they might have done in their homes, such as folding towels, helps reduce responsive behaviours like shouting,”she says.

It Makes You Feel More Time-Rich
Giving away some of your time can actually make you feel that you have more of it, so that you feel less rushed. According to a series of experiments conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, this effect is due to the feelings of accomplishment and competence people derive from doing a task that benefits someone else—editing a student’s essay, for example, or writing a supportive note to a sick child.

It Makes You Feel Good
While it’s true that people are more likely to give of their time in the first place if they’re relatively healthy and happy, research has now been able to tease apart cause and effect when it comes to the impact of volunteering on mental well-being.

“Studies show that volunteering over time is associated with improvements in happiness, compared to non-volunteers,”Anderson says. In the study she and her colleagues conducted, feeling appreciated or needed seemed to amplify the effects of volunteering on well-being.

For Janice Kreider, that happiness has been fed by a multitude of fulfilling moments, such as witnessing the awe on the face of a little girl who pulled a parsnip up out of the dirt during one fall harvest on the farm project. “She was utterly overwhelmed,”Kreider says. Kreider says she also enjoys seeing friendships form among children from diverse ethnic backgrounds, as well as the thrill the kids get from simple things such as visiting the chickens and bounding through the forest. “I get a lot of joy out of these little experiences.”


Photo: iStock/Martin Barraud.

Volunteering By the Numbers

“I hate hearing people suggest that the aging population is going to cost society,” says Sylvie Belleville, a psychology professor at the University of Montreal and the research director at the Montreal University Institute of Geriatrics. She believes quite the contrary. “We forget that as people age, many of them contribute by volunteering—working for free.”

In fact, many experts believe that in view of the benefits for both older adults and society as a whole, governments should offer more organized recognition and financial support for volunteering—for example, by providing reimbursements for expenses incurred by volunteers.

And while Canadians in general are generous with their time (more than four in 10 Canadians 15 or older volunteer, contributing an average of 154 hours a year—the equivalent in time of 1.1 million full-time jobs), those 55 or older are the most active volunteers.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2013:

• 41% of Canadians aged 55 to 64 volunteered an average of 203 hours a year.

• 38% of those aged 65 to 74 volunteered an average of 231 hours a year.

• 39% of Canada’s volunteer hours were contributed by people 55 or older.