Help Yourself by Helping Others
Volunteer work can offer significant health benefits, especially for older adults
When Irene Glowinski packs grocery bags for critically ill patients and Cheryl White brings her trained service dog to visit hospitals and "read" to children at an elementary school, they recognize the good they're doing for others. But these volunteers don't generally think of the good they're doing for themselves.
Volunteering can benefit your health, says Angela Thoreson, a psychotherapist with Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, Minnesota. As she has written, "Research has shown that volunteering offers significant health benefits, especially for older adults."
These benefits can be divided into five broad categories. Let's look at them in sections with some examples from real life.
1. Volunteering Can Improve Physical Health
"Volunteers report better physical health than non-volunteers," says Thoreson. She mentions the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that leads to positive, relaxed feelings and reduced stress. Studies show this can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, and other illnesses.
"People who volunteer have lower mortality rates than those who do not."
"People who volunteer have lower mortality rates than those who do not, even when controlling for age, gender and physical health," she writes.
Since 2021, Glowinski has volunteered for three hours a week — or more — at Food & Friends in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that delivers medically vetted meals and groceries to critically ill neighbors over 5,000+ square miles (1.2 million total deliveries a year). Packing grocery bags, the volunteer teams are on their feet and moving constantly, lifting and shifting containers of beans, fruit, pasta, tomato sauce and so on.
Glowinski has trained and done aerobics for decades, which helps. Lifting weights and strengthening muscles "can help prevent or control conditions as varied as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and osteoporosis," according to a Harvard Medical School publication for older adults.
"Research also has shown that volunteering leads to lower rates of depression and anxiety, especially for people 65 and older."
Dog lovers can improve their own health by using well-trained canines to improve people's lives. Volunteers at The Dog Alliance, based in Cedar Park, Texas, provide service dogs for disabled veterans and first responders; certify therapy dogs and handlers to help children read and reduce stress for hospital patients and employees; offer summer camps and dog training to the public; and more.
Cheryl White has volunteered since 2011. She's a Hounds for Heroes puppy raiser. In addition, she and Boudreaux — a Great Pyrenees/Catahoula mix — take part in a "read to a dog" program at an Austin elementary school and visit staff and patients at a hospital.
Hospital work involves a lot of walking. Having retired from teaching six years ago, White is glad that volunteering gets her out of the house and moving. Boudreaux is in demand, so there's a lot of ground to cover — six floors in 60 to 90 minutes.
2. Volunteering Can Improve Mental Health
"Research also has shown that volunteering leads to lower rates of depression and anxiety, especially for people 65 and older," Thoreson writes. "By spending time in service to others, volunteers report feeling a sense of meaning and appreciation, both given and received, which can have a stress-reducing effect."
Meeting people and talking to them engages the brain, White notes, while "interacting with children and having fun — mental health goes with that. No depression there." Her therapy dog, whether meeting a patient or a staff member, "is the gateway for others to feel better. Of course, I've got him all the time."
"It makes me feel good to be doing this," says Glowinski, who directs the groceries she compiles at Food & Friends into bags labeled for people suffering from diabetes, cancer, renal disease, and other maladies. "As clichéd as the term is, I can tell I'm making a difference. The clients are thoroughly vetted, and you know these people are truly, truly in need."
3. Volunteering Provides a Sense of Purpose
Helping others gives volunteers a sense of purpose and accomplishment, says Thoreson. "The work volunteers provide is essential to everyday activities," she adds. "Older volunteers experience greater increases in life satisfaction and self-esteem."
"The work volunteers provide is essential to everyday activities."
White's parents "did for others," so she had role models. Teaching special education classes also showed her the importance of helping those who have difficulty in life. Now, seeing how much good her therapy dogs have done, "I owe it to people that I can share this," she says. "I feel like it's an obligation: If I can help, I should help."
When clients' lives are literally on the line, as is the case at Food & Friends, volunteers also feel an obligation to meet the need. "A whole group of us talk about this," Glowinski says (echoing White): "If we miss a shift, we feel we have to make up the time. We all have the same sense of mission.
"Plus," she adds, "this is really a lot of fun."
4. Volunteering Teaches Valuable Skills — and Draws on Them
Many volunteers learn skills "on the job"; others bring or hone abilities they've learned elsewhere. Part of volunteering may be mentoring others. All of this, Thoreson suggests, keeps both mind and social skills active.
White has put in years of training and practice with her dogs, from basic obedience to "canine citizen" classes to specific therapy work. The Dog Alliance has booked about 2,000 volunteer hours from her since 2011.
"One of the best ways to make new friends and strengthen existing relationships is to participate in a shared activity."
While a dog is "reading" with a child, for example, her role is to monitor the dog for stress or discomfort. At the hospital, employees under stress and patients in physical or emotional pain all find release in nuzzling and confiding in the dog. Years of teaching special-needs children certainly add to White's skill set.
At the National Institutes of Health, Glowinski spent two decades helping to oversee 200 people and a division that dispersed $1.5 billion a year in grants and contracts for research on a range of infectious diseases. So "the military precision really appealed to me" at Food & Friends, a nonprofit with a 100% rating from nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator. "I see what needs to be done at the end of three hours. Everyone works together, and we get there."
Plus, she gets to do some informal mentoring of younger volunteers who are in the public health field or planning to attend medical school. "They ask about my career trajectory," she says. Once the morning's work settles into a pattern, there's time to feel some satisfaction in providing guidance to others.
5. Volunteering Nurtures New and Existing Relationships
"One of the best ways to make new friends and strengthen existing relationships is to participate in a shared activity," writes Thoreson. "In many cases, volunteers have diverse backgrounds, which helps expand their social network and allows them to practice social skills with others."
While hospital patients are petting Boudreaux, White talks with them. "It's good socialization time, good to make connections," she says. "When you see the same doctors and nurses all the time, you get to know them too. I enjoy that."
"We all have the same sense of mission. Plus, this is a lot of fun."
In fact, one nurse asked whether White made rounds at the elementary school, then exclaimed, "My daughter knows your dog!"
"Just through the dog, I got to know the mom more, and then I got to know the daughter," White says.
After nearly two years of chatty weekly shifts with fellow volunteers, "we're developing friendships," Glowinski says. Texts, phone calls, lunch after shift — these are all building blocks. "Yes, you develop new relationships with these people. Not a bad thing, right?" she laughs.
In fact, regular connection — including steady volunteer work together — helps people make and keep friendships, and studies show that friendships are important to healthy aging.
Any healthy practices are helpful, of course. A combination is even better. "I think it is partly that sense of purpose and satisfaction and self-esteem that all lend themselves to good mental health," Glowinski says. "Get a mission, pitch in together as a team — that's hard to beat."