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by Judy Dahl



Did you know that people who volunteer not only help their communities, but reap mental and physical health benefits as well? A 2007 study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Washington, D.C., reports that those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who don't volunteer.

Volunteers often experience the upbeat feeling referred to as "helper's high," along with increased trust in others and increased social and political participation. Older adults tend to receive greater benefits from volunteering than other age groups do.

So, as you plan your retirement life, consider making volunteerism a key component. Deborah Smith, associate professor of sociology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Tess Scannell, director of Senior Corps, New York, answer some common questions about volunteering.

Q: Why should I volunteer rather than relax after I retire?

Deborah Smith: Today's retirees generally are younger and healthier than in the past, and, at retirement, have many years ahead of them. In a study I conducted about midlife, participants aged 50 to 65 named volunteering the No. 2 component in an ideal retirement lifestyle, after leisure. People who volunteer often say they get more out of it than the people they help.

Do the same type of self-inventory as when you're seeking a job.

Tess Scannell: Retirees want their lives to include a range of activities; one dimension is to be with family, another is being involved in their communities in ways that make a difference. The old idea of quitting work and living the leisure life has turned out not to be so attractive. After a year or so, people don't feel rewarded spiritually.

Q: What motivates other people my age?

Scannell: Baby boomers generally want to be engaged in their communities and are very passionate about issues. Boomers need to feel they're making a difference. They're not likely to go in and stuff envelopes without asking any questions. They want to use the skills they've honed over the past 40 years and to know the time they spend is well worth it. They have a lot of demands on their time and need to know they're contributing toward an end that can be measured. They need flexibility too—it won't work for an organization to say, "We accept volunteers from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays."

Q: When should I get started?

Scannell: Start while you're still working. Research shows that people who volunteer while they're working are more likely to do so after retirement.

The old idea of quitting work and living the leisure life has turned out not to be so attractive.

Smith: As a midlife worker, get out there now and see what volunteer opportunities are available, so you know what you enjoy and you aren't at a loss when you retire.

Q: What's the first step?

Smith: Figure out what you like. Do you want to work with children or people your own age? Do you prefer to work one-on-one or with a group? In the background or in public? If you're married, do you want to volunteer with your spouse or separately? It's important to find volunteer activities you'll enjoy. There's such a need out there that organizations will put you to work, but if it's not a good fit, it's not good for anyone.

Scannell: Do the same type of self-inventory as when you're seeking a job. Some people want leadership roles; others want lower-profile opportunities to use the high-level skills they've developed. Figure out what your passion is, what issues you care about, and seek organizations devoted to that mission.

Q: What will the time commitment be?

Smith: It's different for everyone. Determine the right balance between leisure and structured activities, and make sure you give yourself some space to enjoy the freedom of retirement. Some people want to scale back their involvement levels. I know of one woman who served on boards of directors for many years. When her husband retired, she wanted to get off the boards, but still wanted to help, maybe with planning annual gala events—a one-month, rather than a full-year commitment. Realize that any help you give is beneficial, and short-term assistance can be very helpful to nonprofits.

Q: How do I find the right organization to work with?

Today's retirees are generally younger and healthier than in the past.

Scannell: Look around your own community and check out different organizations like you would if you were joining a gym, or making choices in another area of your life. Figure out which organizations are logistically reasonable for you. You also can check organizations that match volunteers with activities, like VolunteerMatch.

Q: What if I don't like it?

Smith: The beauty of volunteering is that you can dabble and see what you like and what you want to spend your time on. You're not worried about benefits or a pension; you have flexibility, and you can leave an organization if you don't like it.



If you want to see the world and do good at the same time, consider a volunteer vacation, or voluntourism. If you want to help the planet, EarthWatch can match you with a trip where you'll help protect marine life or prevent climate change. Or contact the National Park Service or your state park agency for volunteer opportunities closer to home.

Other volunteer resources

These organizations can help you find volunteer opportunities

Volunteers by selected characteristics (age),
September 2008

                                Percent of
Age                          population

16 to 24 years               21.9 
25 to 34 years               22.8 
35 to 44 years               31.3 
45 to 54 years               29.9 
55 to 64 years               28.1 
65 years and over          23.5 

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Division of Labor Force Statistics

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Published April 30, 2009

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