Senior Citizen's Guide digital books
Senior Citizen's Guide

Volunteerism
Giving Back To Your Community

A retired librarian sets up a library for a struggling school. A former government worker designs the websites for a nonprofit organization. A woman helps an elderly neighbor with failing eyesight when it comes time to pay her bills. From January to mid-April, people with financial expertise offer tax preparation assistance to other seniors and low-income people.

What do all these people have in common? They are no longer pursuing careers, but all want to participate in activities that will contribute to their communities. They all volunteer.

The organizations and individuals who receive services provided by volunteers readily acknowledge the good they do. But studies show that volunteering also benefits volunteers in numerous ways. As a group, seniors who volunteer are healthier than those who don't, according to a study conducted at the University of Michigan. Senior volunteers also have greater cognitive and mental well being than seniors in general. In addition, volunteering reduces the likelihood of isolation by providing a social outlet for retirees.

The volunteers themselves, however, have a different way of explaining their decision to volunteer. "How many times can you clean a closet?" asks Alice "Sam" Raatjes of Baltimore, who puts her computer design skills to use for the RSVP for Baltimore County, Maryland. But that is only her most recent foray into the world of volunteering. Since retiring from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2001, Raatjes, 56, has served with the USO, her grandson's school, and with several organizations that benefit from her expertise at designing newsletters. She also works part time.

Groups such as nonprofit organizations, churches, schools, and hospitals are always on the lookout for volunteers, for either short-term events or ongoing projects. With so many to choose from, the biggest questions may not be whether to volunteer, but how to get started and how to figure out which volunteer opportunity is the right one.

Judy Cormier, director of RSVP for South Central Connecticut, offers some suggestions. In guiding a potential volunteer, "we try to follow their lead." Some volunteers want to develop new skills, while others are interested in using their personal and work life experiences in new ways. Some are interested in putting in a few hours a month; others rack up volunteer hours at the rate of 20 to 25 a week. From tutoring children to serving meals to needy people to planning programs at a respected museum, there is something for everyone.

Raatjes echoes that sentiment. As a volunteer, "I think you're more appreciated. The agency or the department and the [people] you're volunteering for appreciate the fact that you're giving of yourself."

Joyce Driben, 64, of Pittsburgh, participates in safety training for senior citizens and volunteers with the Radio Information Service, reading from Braille newspapers and other publications over the radio. "A lot of our listeners are older and don't know Braille," said Driben, who is blind herself. Part of her impetus for volunteering is "enlightened self-interest," she says. "I appreciate volunteers. I rely on volunteers to get some things done," including help with shopping and sorting the mail.

Former bookkeeper Mary Ronzka, 64, also of the Pittsburgh area, retired in 2000 when her husband did, but wasn't ready to retire. She serves with Bill Payers, a money management program that matches seniors with failing eyesight with volunteers to help them pay their bills. Ronzka believes that her efforts on behalf of her client "help me more than anybody else." She describes her client as "dynamite; she has a real positive attitude." Their twice-monthly sessions last up to four hours, and typically include shopping and lunch, in addition to paying the bills.

"Seniors are crucial to the future of volunteerism," says Cormier, who expects to see a new wave of potential senior volunteers—baby boomers—within the next year or so. Like the seniors who are already volunteering, they have plenty to offer their communities, and volunteering gives them a way to do it. "Seniors are living longer and living better," she says, "And they want to be socially and intellectually stimulated."

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