ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Have some free time on your hands? Think about volunteering in your community. It will do you good.
An independent report released last week by the Corporation for National and Community Service, or CNCS, the federal agency responsible for the nation’s volunteer and service efforts, says people who volunteer, particularly those 55 and older, enjoy improved health and a sense of well-being.
The study tracked the health and well-being of Senior Corps volunteers in the Senior Companion program, which helps home-bound seniors maintain independence, and in the Foster Grandparent program, which offers tutoring and mentoring to at-risk youth.
About 80 percent of the volunteers in these programs report a household income of less than $20,000 a year.
According to the research, after two years in Senior Corps, 84 percent of older adults reported improved or stable health; 32 percent of volunteers who reported good health at the beginning of the study said their health improved even more after two years.
Of those who reported five or more symptoms of depression at the beginning of the study, 78 percent said they felt less depressed two years later; and of Senior Corps volunteers who first reported a lack of companionship, 88 percent of them said their feelings of isolation decreased after two years in the program.
Another program available through the Senior Corps is the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, which allows people to use their skills and talents, or to develop new ones, while serving their communities. Such service could include organizing Neighborhood Watch programs, tutoring or mentoring disadvantaged or disabled youth, helping to renovate homes, teaching English to immigrants or assisting victims of natural disasters.
Each year, Senior Corps engages about 220,000 Americans 55 and older through its Foster Grandparent, Senior Companion, and RSVP programs.
In New Mexico, nearly 3,300 residents serve through Senior Corps, more than 1,000 of them in Albuquerque. Statewide, these older volunteers provide more than 1.3 million hours of service at 360 locations each year.
Maria ReQua, supervisor for Foster Grandparent program in Albuquerque, and president of the National Senior Corps Association, said she has personally witnessed the health rewards enjoyed by volunteers.
“We have volunteers from age 55 to 92 and the benefits are clear and obvious,” she said. Some recently widowed people who enrolled in the program had been taking anti-depressant drugs, but after serving as volunteers “they were able to reduce or eliminate those prescriptions.”
People who were taking insulin to control their diabetes found that after volunteering, eating healthy meals provided through the program and beginning a regular regimen of exercise, they were able to switch to oral medications to control their disease.
“We’ve had many senior participants who were struggling with memory issues, but due to service they learned new things every day and their memory began improving,” ReQua said.
“Some of our volunteers have physical limitations, so their assignments are tailored to their abilities, which allows them to keep active for as long as possible,” benefiting them, as well as the people they serve, she said.