Senior Volunteers: A Sense of Purpose
During April’s National Volunteer Month, we have been reminded about the many health benefits older adults gain through service to others. Many experts have referred to an “epidemic” of loneliness and isolation among seniors, which raises the risk of many health conditions, including dementia. Senior volunteers may find that serving others is a great way to connect.
Volunteering also promotes healthy aging by providing a sense of purpose, which benefits the mind, body and spirit. It feels good to do good, and volunteering is a perfect way to get that helping high! Seniors are volunteering in record numbers; according to the U.S. Administration on Aging, one-fourth of all older adults volunteer, representing 10 million pairs of helping hands. They’re providing their time and expertise to schools, healthcare organizations, charities, civic groups, faith communities, and many other organizations that serve the needy.
Now, a new study by University of Illinois researchers has found that more older Americans are volunteering abroad—close to 300,000 at last count. This is more than double the number of seniors who provided volunteer service in foreign countries a decade ago. Social work professor Benjamin Lough and doctoral student Xiaoling Xiang offered several reasons for this new trend:
Retired baby boomers have free time to spare. Host organizations prefer volunteers who can stay for a longer period of time. The boomer senior volunteers are also financially well-off enough to afford to do this; many report annual household incomes of $150,000 or more.
The boomers value civic engagement and giving back to others—but they also have a “thirst for adventure,” which makes overseas volunteer service a perfect match. Lough and Xiang reported that many older volunteers said they were “interested in learning about other cultures, but from in-depth, relational perspectives that usually are not experienced through tourism.”
According to Lough, “Host countries consistently express a preference for older workers, who have greater skills and experience to offer.” The team reports that nearly half of older adults in the study had advanced degrees. Lough adds, “Host organizations and communities are less interested in hosting young people who have fewer skills—they want competent people who can contribute something really useful, who have lifelong experience doing things.” Coming from an often youth-centric country like the U.S., these older volunteers no doubt find this refreshing!
The U.S. Peace Corps began targeting older adults in a marketing campaign that began in 2006. That effort has paid off, and close to 10 percent of applications for overseas service now come from older adults.
Lough reported, “The single most important predictor of whether a person volunteers or not is if they are asked, so being asked is really important, as is having access to institutions that will ask for volunteers. If we really think that productive aging is something that people want to do and should do, a key question of recruitment is, do we ask them? How do we increase the access for older adults to be productive, give back to society, and tap into the potential that they have developed over a lifetime of experience?” He and Xiang reported that awareness is key, and that even more senior volunteers would serve abroad if financial and healthcare-access barriers were removed.
Source: IlluminAge AgeWise reporting on a news release and study from University of Illinois