How all seniors can benefit from volunteering

Every Tuesday, Youville Assisted Living resident "Mary" volunteers at a local soup kitchen. She and fellow volunteers spend three hours preparing meals for the homeless. This weekly routine is rich with personal history for Mary, who has made and maintained many enduring friendships through her volunteer work. Now in her 80s, she still looks forward to seeing her friends at the soup kitchen and making a positive difference in the lives of so many.

For Mary, community service is rooted in her church upbringing. She has never thought twice about serving others. In addition to her work in the soup kitchen, she participates regularly in volunteer activities at Youville Assisted Living Residences and elsewhere in the community. She attributes to her active service a sense of empowerment and purpose in life.

Regular volunteering has been linked to increased longevity, relief from chronic pain and fewer hospital visits. One study found that seniors who volunteered with at least two organizations over the course of a year had healthier hearts and 44 percent lower mortality rate than their non-volunteering peers. Of all age groups surveyed across many studies, seniors report the greatest health benefits from their volunteering.

Volunteering often leads to increased physical activity and better cardiovascular health. Researchers have also honed in on a special hormone our body releases during the commission of good deeds, called oxytocin. Not only does this hormone disrupt stress, but it also helps our cells store nutrients and repair themselves. Thanks to oxytocin, senior volunteers are happier and less stressed out.

Studies have confirmed that volunteers over the age of 65 experience less depression than non-volunteering seniors. A major reason seems to be that volunteering can help us maintain social connections and a meaningful role in our community after retirement.

The power of good intentions

There's an often-quoted saying of Dr. Martin Luther King on volunteerism: "Everybody can be great because everybody can serve." Even when health or disability prevents seniors from community service, many continue to serve in smaller ways. These people make a difference in their immediate surroundings, drawing from the same reservoir of good will that inspires the most active community volunteers.

Such helpers can be found in any Senior Living Community. At Youville, there's the small group of residents who help place menus in the dining room before meals. There are the early risers every Tuesday morning who arrange flowers through the common areas. There are the many eager participants in Youville's community benefit programs, who help prepare food for those in need. These residents show that even when we rely on others, we can continue to extend a hand when possible.

Research shows that a desire to help -- regardless of whether you are actually able to offer real help -- has a positive impact on health and happiness. A National Institute of Health study in 2007 monitored brain activity of people as they considered donating money to a list of charities. As participants selected the charities, an FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) device picked up on increased activity in the mesolimbic pathway -- this is the area of the brain where we experience joy and pleasure. Simply thinking about making donations caused the participants in the study to release "feel good" chemicals.

If you're skeptical, try it yourself. Take a few minutes to imagine yourself making a positive difference in someone's life. You could be donating money to a special cause, or, like Mary, feeding the homeless at your local soup kitchen. Whatever scenario you invent, the act of imagining, all by itself, should lead to a sense of pleasure.

Researcher Stephen Post, professor of Preventative Medicine at Stony Brook University, thinks that oxytocin, also known as the "compassion hormone," is one of the most important of the feel-good chemicals released by the brain during altruistic acts. When we commit selfless acts of kindness, or even just imagine such acts, a rush of oxytocin inhibits the stress response, enabling us to reach out to strangers with minimized feelings of discomfort.

Visualizing improved outcomes for others, whether through prayer, meditation or imaginative exercises, makes us feel better and reduces stress. Research suggests that over time, reduced stress leads to improved cardiovascular health for volunteers and those who simply wish for the common good.

For those who are independent, finding local volunteer opportunities is a great way to stay healthy and social engaged. If you're unable to go out into the community, remember that every act on the spectrum of good intentions, no matter how minor, has its value. Although age can slow us down, our good will toward others continues to offer us ways to connect with others and find fulfillment.

Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England. See