As the population ages in nations such as Australia and the United States, increasing numbers of offspring wonder how to help their retired, now lonely, and often depressed parent. Some of these may ask you for advice on how to help their beloved mum or dad. Of course, health problems must be tended to, but when the senior is relatively healthy yet unhappy, you might suggest that the adult child encourage their parent to begin volunteering.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (2013) reported that Australians 55 and older contribute an economic value of $74.5 billion to the community. In the United States, the Corporation for National and Community Service indicates that the one in four Americans 55 and older who volunteer contribute more than 3 billion hours of annual service with an economic benefit totalling more than $64 billion (Salute to Senior Service, 2018b). There are enormous benefits to both the volunteers and their communities. Let’s look at the personal level first.

Benefits to the volunteer

The sense of wellbeing that comes to volunteers through their unpaid work can improve their health and happiness on many levels according to research by Home Instead, Inc. (Salute to Senior Service, 2018a).

Enhanced sense of mission and purpose

For men, especially, but increasingly for women, individuals tend to define themselves largely by their role(s) in life: e.g., worker, spouse, parent. When the children leave home, when retirement begins, or when someone is widowed, the roles by which such individuals formerly defined themselves, and through which they sculpted a sense of purpose in life, are suddenly gone. “Volunteering provides many older adults with a purpose,” according to Dr Erwin Tan, director of Senior Corps (Salute to Senior Service, 2018a). In fact, the Home Instead research showed that fully 99% of the volunteers they surveyed wanted to make a difference. 98% found a renewed spiritual purpose in their volunteering.

Improved physical health and greater physical activity

You’d guess that seniors with chronic health conditions would hesitate to volunteer, and that the ranks would be filled instead by older volunteers with no chronic conditions, right? In fact, seniors with chronic conditions devote more hours to community service than seniors without them. 98% of those surveyed said it helped them to stay active and feel better physically. Volunteers are almost always more active than those who don’t volunteer.

Better emotional health and mental outlook

98% said that they felt better emotionally as a result of volunteering, with 70% claiming to have overcome depression. Given that depression (frequently somatised and masquerading as physical complaints) is a major challenge for the senior population, this is a valuable benefit.

Enlivened social networks

74% of the volunteers found that having a reason to get up in the morning helped them overcome their feelings of isolation: along with depression, the most serious risk factor for senior health.

Sharing wisdom, giving back

90% of the respondents wanted to give back the knowledge, skills, and creativity they had spent decades honing.

Mental acuity/perspective

84% stated that they wanted to occupy free time. Doing so through active participation in activities helps to support the “executive function” areas of the brain.

Stress relief/pain management

Fully 75% of those with chronic conditions — such as diabetes, arthritis, depression, high blood pressure, and even dementia — noted that volunteering helped to distract them from the pain and health concern. Other sources note that volunteering greatly helps to reduce the ongoing negative effects of stress that many seniors face: not only the loneliness, depression, and physical issues noted above, but also stresses such as waning material resources (Salute to Senior Service, 2018a; ACA, 2017; Taylor, 2017).

 

Benefits to society

If the adult child asking for help for their parent is not convinced by the above research, you can cite societal-level advantages of volunteerism. Because senior volunteers have had a lifetime of learning skills and acquiring wisdom, they are an asset to both businesses and non-profit organisations alike. The value of this resource is compounded when an effort is made to match up the volunteer with tasks which they particularly enjoy or do well. One survey conducted a few years after the Global Financial Crisis noted that, given the many organisations experiencing often severe fiscal stress in the wake of the GFC, there was an accelerated need for volunteer support. At that time, 60% of the volunteers stepping in to help said that they did so more than they otherwise would have because they realised that the need was greater as a result of the weakened economy (Salute to Senior Service, 2018b). Even apart from the direct economic benefits to society, we can note that each older person who keeps themselves healthier – on all levels – as a result of volunteering is a person depending less on public and private health care systems, saving untold dollars that would otherwise be spent on them.

Guidelines

Your client’s parent can make a difference well into their senior years if they observe a few guidelines that will help them keep turning up each day with a smile. First, in volunteering as in paid work, seniors should try to do something for which they have fire in their belly. Maybe they couldn’t work to save endangered orangutans while they were working, but they can choose to do so now. Whatever their passion, it is easier to exercise it if they look for where there is a need. Second, there are inevitably people who criticise, start turf wars, or otherwise act obstreperously: just like when they were working. A bit of laughing it off and giving up perfectionism go a long way here; this isn’t “work” anymore; it’s a freely chosen retirement activity! Similarly, deflecting criticism and steering clear of conflict go a long way toward maintaining that sense of joy and delight that can infuse volunteering. The senior volunteer should remember: it’s no longer about increasing pay or job status; harmonising with more insistent others may end up being a more fruitful path in the long run (Salute to Senior Service, 2018c; Myageing parent.com, 2015.

If you do convince the concerned adult child that volunteering could be a good solution to their parent’s woes, and that client is able likewise to convince their parent, you will have done much to advance the wellbeing of not only the volunteer, but also that of his or her whole community.