The holiday season is one of the most common times to pay it forward. But donating time does more than help others, it also benefits the volunteer's physical and mental health.
"If you focus on other people and make new connections, that's really quite powerful,” says Elizabeth Landsverk, founder of ElderConsult, a geriatric medical house-call program based in California. “It can decrease the chance of depression that elders are more at risk for."
Older adults who volunteer for at least 200 hours a year decrease their risk of high blood pressure by 40 percent and find greater psychological well-being, a Carnegie Mellon University study found in 2013.
"The holidays are a time of year that highlights or magnifies your losses. People in their 50's and beyond, all of us have had some loss,” says Gail Snow, who oversees volunteers at Our Heart Speaks, a resource for people newly living with disability or chronic pain. “Many of us don't have our parents around anymore, and the holidays really highlight that. Doing something to help out other people really helps point some of that emotional energy in a positive direction."
For those who don't know where to volunteer, Snow suggests selecting an organization “near and dear” to a lost loved one. There are various national search platforms that help prospective volunteers find options within their community. Among them are:
- AARP puts older adults in contact with opportunities with AARP programs or other organizations seeking volunteers.
- Points of Light provides volunteer opportunities in a comprehensive database that also allows for people to lead volunteer projects of their own.
- Volunteer Match helps match people with causes important to them.
For those who don't live near an organization that works with a specific issue of interest, there are a variety of other options within every community. Some suggestions: advocating for a local cause, mentoring at a community center, starting a coat drive to help homeless or less fortunate kids and adults, serving food to the homeless, volunteering with scouting organizations, or becoming a Senior Corps foster grandparent.
"If you go door-to-door canvassing for a cause, you're talking to people, you're also walking and there is no getting around that exercise is really huge” for health, says Landsverk.
For older adults who are unable to meet the physical demands of volunteering, there are still ways to give back from home. Snow says that communicating an organization's message online is a great way to raise awareness or even assist in fundraising.
"To get the word out about the organization … is always critical for a nonprofit,” Snow says. “Somebody who is willing to put themselves out there for a nonprofit and help them get their word out can create awareness or help generate funds for them."
Those seeking to volunteer remotely could reach out to an organization of interest and ask to assist with its email marketing, advertising, analyzing website traffic, or writing content for its website or newsletter.
"Volunteering or donating takes me away from the madness of the season. It reminds me what it's all about,” says Snow. “When you look at the people that you're serving through volunteering, you realize what's really important. It reminds you not to sweat the small stuff."