Growing up, I used to spend every Tuesday after dance class at my friend Kate’s house, hanging out and sharing laughs with her family around the dinner table before retreating upstairs. Kate’s grandmother Eva had been living with them for a while at that point, and was always part of the fun. While she loved being around people in the evening, she often got lonely during the day when everyone was away. When Kate suggested that her grandmother might enjoy doing volunteer work, Eva scoffed at the idea, saying she was “too old.”
So Kate did some digging, and before long had shown Eva a few local organizations that were specifically looking for senior volunteer workers. Kate pointed out that volunteering at an animal shelter sounded right up her alley. After a bit of prodding, Eva agreed to give it a shot. For the next several years, she diligently spent two afternoons per week helping out at the animal shelter. During the weekly family dinners that I attended during those years, I watched Eva become happier and more outgoing. The joy and stories she brought to the table brightened the whole room.
Benefits of Volunteering for Older Adults
We all know that volunteering helps us feel good—there’s no need to belabor that point. But aside from the usual warm fuzzies that come from helping others, there are a few other benefits, some that relate directly to older adults. Aging in place can often be a solitary experience, which in turn can lead to issues like isolation-related depression and anxiety for your loved one.
Volunteering offers older adults the opportunity to form ongoing new relationships with people of all ages and different backgrounds. Socializing with inspiring people, while supporting a worthwhile cause, can also be energizing. Engaging in senior volunteer work might also give your loved one a renewed sense of purpose and gratitude. Research even shows that volunteering has a positive effect on both the mental and physical condition of older adults. Studies suggest that giving back not only releases serotonin and other happy hormones in the body, but improves mental health, increases lifespan, and combats depression. Sounds pretty good, right?
Finding the Right Volunteer Work for Your Loved One
So if you want to help your aging loved one feel better—on the inside, and out—it’s important to find a volunteer opportunity that’s a good match for them. Consider their unique passions and personality:
- Do they like to be around people, or prefer solitary activities?
- Do they love animals, or enjoy being around young children?
- Would they appreciate an afternoon spent gardening?
- Are they experienced in a particular field like education, art, or healthcare?
The best way to discover what your loved one enjoys is to talk with them about it. Ask them if there’s any activity they’d especially like to start engaging in. Offer a few examples you think they might like, and listen compassionately to their answers—it could be that they’re excited about something that surprises you. By getting a feel for your loved one’s interests and needs, you can come up with well-suited volunteer opportunities together. Additionally, there are multiple resources online offering suggestions for senior volunteer work around the world, as well as within the Bay Area itself.
Exploring Volunteer Opportunities for Older Adults
Whether your loved one is passionate about teaching, cooking, animals, or helping kids, there’s likely to be an opportunity that fits with their skills and interests. When you have a sense of what type of volunteer work might be a good match for your loved one, check out what’s available in your area.
- Working with children: Helping out a local daycare or preschool can be incredibly rewarding for older adults. Spending time with little children has positive effects on their emotional and mental well-being. If your loved one used to be a teacher, or has a special skill to share, this is a great way for them to give back while benefitting from all-important social time.
- Helping animals: If your loved one is passionate about animals, working at an animal shelter will be deeply worthwhile. This is a particularly good choice if your aging loved grew up with pets and can no longer have animals where they live (perhaps due to apartment regulations or some other cause). Whether it’s walking dogs or socializing with rescue cats for a few hours, it’s proven that petting animals makes people happier.
- Gardening outdoors: Spending time in nature is known to be a natural stress-reducer and mood-booster. Particularly for older adults with a green thumb, working at a local community garden can be a real blessing. Digging around in dirt, planting seeds, and weeding are all conducive to feeling more relaxed. Plus, gardening’s a great activity to keep the blood flowing and the body active.
- Traveling abroad: For older adults with specialized training in fields like medicine, nursing, or social work, there are many opportunities to support international nonprofits in developing countries abroad. Older adults also tend to adapt more quickly than others in environments that don’t have much technology. Meanwhile, their life experiences also prove significantly valuable when confronted with challenging situations.
Of course, there are so many other types of senior volunteer work available, this is far from an exhaustive list. Once you start searching, more doors will open up. Make sure traveling to and from the location is feasible for them—but don’t let a bit of distance keep them from pursuing an opportunity they’re truly interested in, especially since there are plenty of transportation options spanning the Bay area. After all, the whole point is to spend time doing something they really like.
Because when they do start volunteering with a cause they feel connected to, it will spark a series of positive ripple effects: your loved one will have more energy, feel physically healthier, and be happier overall. Especially for older adults aging in place, volunteer work offers a way for them to socialize with others while feeling purposeful. Better yet, you might even want to accompany your loved one to their volunteer work from time to time, so you too can feel the positive effects of giving back.
Your aging loved one deserves to feel excited and passionate about life. IOA offers resources and services to provide the care and support that they need to happily age in place. Contact us today to learn more.