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How Volunteering Can Help You Live Healthier and Longer

Senior volunteer, Rita Baresh helps a boy with reading.
Rita Baresh, the 2012 Senior Heroes Minnesota Winner, is an incredibly passionate and energetic community volunteer. She has been an active volunteer for the Moose Lake KIDS PLUS and AGE to age initiatives.

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By Dr. Amy D'Aprix, expert in aging, retirement and caregiving

For many people, one of the highlights of volunteering is the opportunity to meet new people and stay engaged in the community. In fact, in a survey conducted by Home Instead, 74 percent of those who responded said that volunteering helped them overcome feeling isolated, and 92 percent said they met new friends through volunteering.

This is fabulous news because making new friends and overcoming isolation are part of what professionals refer to as "social support." Social support can be thought of in two ways: emotional social support and task social support. When we turn to someone because we need a hug, a listening ear, or help coping with the emotional side of life, we are looking for emotional social support. When we ask someone to run an errand for us, help us fix something in the house, or to pick up some groceries for us, we are asking for task social support.

Having good social support is very important to our well-being. Research shows that people who have good social support as they age live longer and healthier, both mentally and physically; are less likely to end up in a nursing home; and heal quicker from illnesses. In addition, the latest research shows that having good social support may offer a protective factor against Alzheimer's disease. So clearly having good social support is very important!

If you aren't sure whether or not you or your senior loved one has enough social support, there is a very simple way to find out. Take a sheet of paper and divide it in half. On one half write "emotional social support" and on the other half write "task social support." Then, on the emotional side, list out all of the people you would turn to if you needed a listening ear, some encouragement, or just someone with whom you could share a great laugh. On the other side, write all of the people you could turn to if you needed something such as a ride to an appointment, help if you were sick, or help with a household task. If your lists only have a couple of names on them, it is likely that you need to grow your social support. More simply put, you need some more friends!

If you do find you need to make more friends, you may feel better knowing that many other people are in the same situation. As we get older, if we don't continue to make new friends and invest time in our long-time friends, we may find our social support isn't as good as it was when we were younger. That's because as we age, our friends may move away, our friendships may shift, or we may find that we have lost some of our friends through death. When these things happen, people often feel lonely and isolated. That is why it is so important to keep making new friends, throughout our lives!

Again, the very good news is volunteering provides a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. Home Instead's Salute to Senior ServiceSM campaign has been a wonderful way to highlight the benefits of volunteering. The campaign's Senior HeroesSM contest encouraged people from all over the United States and Canada to nominate and recognize seniors for their outstanding volunteer efforts. Social connectedness and relationships built through compassionate service were recurring themes throughout the entries.

One of the best ways to increase your chances of making friends while volunteering is to choose a volunteer activity that fits your interests and your personality. This increases the likelihood that the other volunteers will be people who also have those interests. In that way, it is likely you will have things in common with each other right from the start.

Start by considering whether or not you have enough friends in your life. And, if you find you don't, you might want to think about volunteering to meet new people. It really is true, volunteering is a wonderful way to both give back to your community and receive the gifts of friendship and connection with others.

Read more articles by Dr. Amy on her blog, Ask Dr. Amy

Last revised: June 4, 2012

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