Volunteers age 55 and over serve hundreds of thousands of people in their communities through Senior Corps programs. Now new research shows that the volunteers themselves are enjoying health benefits after just one year of service, including decreases in anxiety and depression, loneliness and social isolation. They also report enhanced physical capacity and higher life satisfaction.
Senior Corps is led by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency for service, volunteering and civic engagement. To look at the health benefits of volunteering for older adults, CNCS launched two longitudinal studies in 2015 that assess the impact of service on their Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion programs. Researchers found:
- Almost two-thirds of Senior Corps volunteers reported a decrease in feelings of isolation, and 67 percent of those who first reported they “often” lack companionship stated that they had improved social connections.
- Seventy percent of volunteers who initially reported five or more symptoms of depression reported fewer symptoms at the end of the first year.
- Sixty-three percent of volunteers who initially indicated three or four symptoms of depression reported fewer symptoms after one year.
"These preliminary findings support a larger body of research that highlights the positive impact of volunteering, particularly for older adults, and are a valuable addition to the conversation on healthy aging," CNCS spokesperson Samantha Jo Warfield tells AARP. "Senior Corps volunteers are deeply dedicated to the communities they serve, spending 15-40 hours a week committed to a single organization, often for several years, developing intensive and ongoing relationships with those they serve."
Photo courtesy of the Corporation for National and Community Service
Senior Corps engages more than 245,000 older adults annually in service through its Foster Grandparent, RSVP and Senior Companion programs. Foster Grandparents become one-on-one tutors and mentors to 267,000 young people with special needs every year. RSVP volunteers help with activities such as neighborhood watch programs, home renovations, English lessons for immigrants and victim assistance during natural disasters. Senior Companion volunteers help 840,000 homebound seniors and other adults maintain independence, keeping aging adults in their own homes by providing respite care and independent living services.
CNCS has numerous stories about volunteers whose lives were improved by the program, Warfield says, including 81-year-old Ramona Griego, who has volunteered with the Santa Fe Senior Companion program in New Mexico for 15 years. Shortly after her husband died, Ramona's diabetes got worse, and she became depressed. She found the Senior Companion program after visiting a senior center and decided to join.
Through the program she said she has developed close friendships and been given a reason to get out and about. As a result of her active volunteer lifestyle, her eating habits became better, as well as her exercise habits, keeping her diabetes in check. She says "the program has allowed me to enjoy my life as I age, and I feel important when I can help my clients with small things that allow them to remain in their homes."
Similarly, the Foster Grandparent program offers an opportunity for increased activity and engagement. Warfield shares the story of Terry Dudley, who is part of the Chattanooga Foster Grandparent program in Tennessee. Terry says his emotional and physical health has improved tenfold, and he has stopped taking as many medications as he once did.
As a Foster Grandparent, he's more mobile and experiences gratifying social interactions, and, most importantly, he has a new sense of purpose. "Through giving of himself to help improve the future of our youth, he is a healthier person who believes he has much to contribute to the community," Warfield says.
Caregivers benefit too
The Senior Companion program not only helps the volunteers and direct recipients of the services, but it also gives respite to caregivers, who reported a positive impact on health and well-being.
Nearly 76 percent of caregivers in the critical-needs group reported Senior Companion respite services helped them “a lot” with both “personal time” and “household management.” Approximately 60 percent said it allowed them to be more involved in social activities and enjoy time with their friends or relatives. Approximately 40 percent of caregivers who rated their health as fair or poor before respite support now rate their health as good.
"Americans are living longer than ever and achieving even more, and as they enter their second act, older adults are choosing to take on new roles after decades of hard work," Warfield says. "There is an opportunity to harness the experience and dedication of generations for the greater good, and Senior Corps provides an opportunity for older adults to be seen as assets, not costs to our society."
The CNCS website offers additional research and information on how to become a Senior Corps volunteer and find a program in your area. CNCS also administers national service programs such as AmeriCorps and leads volunteer and civic engagement initiatives including the MLK Day of Service and 9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance.
AARP is a sponsor of an AmeriCorps project called AARP Experience Corps, which places adults 50 and older in classrooms to help implement a highly structured reading curriculum.