What's the 'Right' Amount of Volunteering for Older Adults?

What's the 'Right' Amount of Volunteering for Older Adults?

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Photo: Senior volunteers helping after a tornado. (National Service Senior Corps)

When Sara Skinner, 79, of Flagstaff, Arizona, offered herself up as a volunteer with the Senior Corps program for retirees two years ago, she described her qualifications in the present tense. "I am a teacher," she said. "I would like to volunteer in the schools."

Message received. Since then, Skinner, a firm believer in public education, has worked in a fifth-grade class in a nearby elementary school and the local literacy center to tutor adults learning English, along with filling various other volunteer needs that pop up.

With plenty of other interests to keep her busy, including a part-time job, Skinner takes care not to spread herself too thin. With volunteering, she said, "All told, I probably spend three or four hours a week doing different things." That's wise of her, recent research suggests.

Skinner moved to Arizona from North Carolina in 2015, to be closer to her son and his family, including her now five-year-old grandson. But she remains independent, living on her own in a small cottage several miles away. For her, volunteering is a way to help out in the community while becoming part of its fabric.

Senior Corps

She connects to opportunities via Senior Corps, a national service program under the auspices of the Corporation for National and Community Service, an independent federal agency. In July, Senior Corps released new data on health benefits for older volunteers after serving in the program for a year.

Of participants in the study, 46 percent reported improved health and well-being; nearly two-thirds had decreased their feelings of isolation and 67 percent of those who initially lacked significant companionship experienced improved social connections. And of volunteers who started with multiple symptoms of depression, up to 70 percent saw those symptoms decrease.

Volunteering is part of Skinner's DNA. Even as full-time community college and secondary school teacher in North Carolina, she made time to help out with Meals on Wheels and in soup kitchens. And, by the way, she spent 2006 to 2008 with the Peace Corps, working with primary school teachers in South Africa.

"Enriching" and "rewarding" is how Skinner describes her current volunteer situation. "No. 1, it has helped me meet lots of people here," she says. "Also, I get involved with a lot of children, with young people. It keeps me involved with education."

When it comes to complex volunteer jobs and the amount of time put in, "less is more" according to new research led by Nicole Anderson, a senior scientist with the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Canada and an associate professor at the University of Toronto. Her small study included adults ages 56 to 86, some recently retired, some long retired and others who had been homemakers.

"We saw cognitive – memory and verbal fluency – gains over the year of volunteering," Anderson says. Those cognitive benefits were greatest in the first six months, she notes, afterward flattening out.

People who volunteered 110 hours or less yearly appeared to do better than those who tried to squeeze in more, according to her study, presented at the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics World Congress, held July in San Francisco. Reduced volunteering-related benefits were tied to perceived stress experienced by certain volunteers – those who put in more hours or who worked in socially complex, mentoring-type roles or in physically demanding roles like assisting with exercise programs.

Volunteering in moderation – about two to three hours a week – is best, several studies suggest, while going beyond that tends to bring diminishing returns. "Our results were in line with others showing that about 100 annual hours is the 'sweet spot' where the greatest benefits are accrued," Anderson concludes.

Overall, however, volunteering boosts mental and physical health for older adults, according to a 2014 review of studies spanning 45 years, led by Anderson. Seniors who volunteer feel happier and less depressed, function better mentally and experience more social support and satisfaction with their lives.

Reimagine Aging

"Volunteering isn't like it used to be," says Deb Taylor, CEO of Senior Community Services and its Reimagine Aging Institute, based in Minnetonka, Minn. In the past, "stuffing envelopes was just fine," she said. "Now we're seeing volunteers who want more challenge in their work. They want to take leadership roles."

Highly skilled volunteer roles, for instance, might include helping fellow seniors navigate their health insurance, Medicare supplements and Part D plans. If you're looking into volunteering, Taylor says, consider the following: "No. 1: What are you passionate about? What are you interested in? Is there a cause or service that you feel especially drawn to?"

In Taylor's experience, working on the front end with volunteers – meeting with them in advance and learning what they want to do and for how long – helps avoid complications of being overextended.

Unfortunately, a different issue can arise when current, dedicated volunteers can no longer accomplish all they once could. For instance, Taylor says, a community center volunteer who takes great pride in multitasking – from coordinating events to running the kitchen – could find it hard to give up those roles. "Often, older adults will feel, 'I can still do this,'" she says. "That's a hard conversation to have."

If someone's ability to organize is slipping, Taylor said, it's probably time to try out different tasks, perhaps working as a receptionist or greeter. "It's just figuring out what works best for that particular person," she said. "So it's still a win-win. They're still able to volunteer; they feel valued and they're in an appropriate volunteer role."

Driving can be a barrier for some older volunteers, although many communities have services to get them where they need to be. For Skinner, driving is usually no problem. She does admit that as a North Carolina transplant now living at a 7,000-foot elevation in Flagstaff, traveling in snow is daunting. Most days, however, she's ready to hit the road to do her share.

"Sometimes, just like anybody, you wake up in the morning and you think, 'Gosh, I'd really just like to stay in today,'" Skinner said. "But you have a commitment – you've told people that you'd be there. So unless you're sick or something, you go. You know that people are depending on you, so you need to step up."

Lisa Esposito, RN, MA, wrote this story for US News & World Report, where she is a Patient Advice reporter, with support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Commonwealth Fund.