Volunteering for a cause you love can keep you engaged in the world around you

Volunteering is not just good for others, it can boost your health, keep you engaged in society

Many older adults find that after years of getting up each day and making a meaningful contribution at work, that they cannot suddenly have nothing to do each morning.

It is fun to read and relax and catch up on chores around the house for a few weeks and maybe take that trip you have always dreamed of, but most people don't have unlimited funds and you can only take so many brisk walks and spend so much time on the internet.

That is why many turn to volunteering. It fills the hours with meaningful, enjoyable activity and assures the individual that they are still competent and have skills that others value. Some research has even found that activities like volunteering may lower the risk of health problems, including dementia, by keeping the brain and body active.

University of Toronto doctoral candidate Miya Narushima found that 65 percent of senior volunteers she surveyed said they spent their time volunteering in order to feel useful or productive.

Other researchers have also found that perceived competence is particularly important to retirees because they have fewer opportunities than younger working adults to demonstrate their abilities. Active retirees use frequent volunteering as a strategy for maintaining their self-worth.

Accomplishment does not cease to be important when someone retires. Volunteering allows people to feel a sense of accomplishment that is much more satisfying than cleaning out gutters or a closet.

Lucia West Jones, executive director of the Agency on Aging for Northeastern Illinois (covering Lake, DuPage, Kane, McHenry, Will and several other collar counties), advocates for seniors to "never stop moving, no matter how old they get" in order to optimize the quality of their lives as they age. Engaging in fulfilling volunteer activities is a wonderful way for seniors to stay active, engaged and excited about life and it also provides useful services to agencies and organizations that desperately need them.

"Volunteering gets them out of their homes and connected to their community. In addition, it is good for them to know that someone is expecting them to be somewhere at a certain time and that they are needed. It gives seniors a purpose," Jones said.

One of the types of volunteer duties that are particularly necessary and popular is the delivery of meals to fellow seniors, she explained. It generally involves a two-hour commitment in the middle of the day.

"Many times the people doing the deliveries are older than the recipients of the meals and that teaches our volunteers that not everyone ages the same. Some are not as lucky as they are and it helps them to appreciate their own positive aging," she said.

Meal delivery is more than just dropping off a meal. Volunteers are generally invited into their homes and they may be that person's only visitor for several days. So the visit acts as a well-being check on the recipient.

"In a way, they are their agency's first responders. If a meal recipient is unable to answer the door for their delivery, the volunteers are trained to call 911 and request assistance," West said.

Meal delivery is a volunteer position that only requires that the body and spirit be willing. No technical training or particular educational level is necessary. Just a car and a driver's license are required.

"We have several people who deliver for our Home Delivered Meal Program and they swear by it. They like giving back to the community and claim that it doubles as a physical workout for them," said Marylin Krolak, executive director of the DuPage Senior Citizen Council.

Hans Pohlmann is one of those meal delivery volunteers. The retired Amoco chemist has been volunteering with the program for 20 years, delivering seven or eight meals, one day each week.

"Some of the people I deliver to are very talkative and others are not. Some simply take the meal and thank me. I get the whole spectrum. I will go in and visit with those who invite me in and I enjoy talking to them about their dogs and cats. Seeing their animals is a side benefit for me because I love animals," Pohlmann said.

"I am glad that these people are at least seeing those of us who are delivering their meals. We are making sure that they are ok," the Winfield resident explained.

Social service agencies that cater to older adults also seek volunteers who are retired medical personnel to help counsel other seniors on self management of chronic diseases like diabetes. They use their professional expertise to teach classes, which allow older people to manage their own conditions.

"Baby Boomers, in particular, want to participate in their own health care. So they seek out information so they can be self-sufficient," West said.

Retired medical professionals can use their expertise to offer dietary suggestions, explain how to read medication labels and so forth.

Social service agencies and other nonprofits are also constantly looking for volunteers to serve on their boards, advisory councils and committees, according to West. In fact, the Agency on Aging is currently searching for two board members in DuPage County, one in Will County and two in McHenry County. They also need two advisory board members to serve in McHenry County.

"If you have a nonprofit in your community that particularly interests you, be proactive. Call and ask to be considered for a position on their board or offer to help them with fundraising or event planning. When you are volunteering, you can choose whatever really interests you and offer to do that," she explained.

For instance, the Agency on Aging holds a Celebrity Chef event each year in Oak Brook and they are always looking for volunteer help. Or you can choose to walk for a cause like Alzheimer's disease or breast cancer. You can volunteer to raise funds for your local hospice, historical society or civic organization or help with the local blood drive.

  Luther Village resident and volunteer Bea Koch, 94, helps preschool students Ethan Charoenrath, left, and Travis Grotjan plant flowers at Luther Village in Arlington Heights. Bob Chwedyk/

Bea Koch of Arlington Heights is 94 but she still volunteers. She spends an hour each week helping at the Shepherd's Flock preschool where she reads to the three-year-olds, plays picture card bingo with them and even participates in their science experiments like a recent one involving cocoons and butterflies.

"I use a walker and cannot bend down or chase the kids anymore, but I love interacting with them," Koch said.

Rita Waters of Mount Prospect is nearly 80, she said, but she is still spry enough to be a volunteer gardener for the Mount Prospect Historical Society. For the past five or six years, she and six to eight others have gathered in the museum garden one hour each week during the growing season to plant, weed, water, trim, mulch and whatever else is necessary to keep the garden looking pristine.

"Gardening is in my blood," Waters explained. "My dad had three-quarters of an acre and harvested tons of vegetables every year. So when I retired, I started my own garden at home and when the Garden Club of Mount Prospect was looking for volunteers to help maintain the garden at the historical society, I decided I wanted to give back to Mount Prospect.

"It has also been a fun challenge to keep the garden historically correct for the time when the house museum was built," she said.

Waters' association with the Mount Prospect Historical Society has also grown over the years. She makes arrangements of fresh holiday greens each December for the museum and helps on the newsletter mailing committee.

"Choose something that is near and dear to your heart and volunteer. It will help you meet new people, make new friends and it will get you away from your couch and television or computer," West stated. "It will also allow you to give back to a community that may have helped you in the past."

"The longer we live, the more losses we incur. We can't go through life isolated and alone. We have to stay engaged and have purpose and meaning in our lives. Volunteering also affords the opportunity for seniors to meet new people in a nonthreatening, nontherapeutic environments and that is priceless," she continued.

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