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3 Ways Volunteering in Retirement Can Improve Your Health

Northwestern MutualVoice Contributor •  February 17, 2016 | Enjoying Retirement

By Sonya Stinson

Al Bennett will never forget the scenes he witnessed on one of his first voyages to Mexico as a volunteer with Mercy Ships nearly 30 years ago. Mothers of children who had just had cataract operations aboard the ship were showing their children the view from the deck, a world they were seeing for the first time.

“To hear a mother with a little child in her arms out on the deck saying, ‘See, that’s a tree! That’s the sky! That’s the ocean!’—that grabs your heart,” Bennett said.

That heart tug led Bennett and his wife, Betty Lou, now both 79, to spend the next 28 years helping Mercy Ships. The Texas-based nonprofit sends surgeons overseas to perform free operations on children with eye defects, cleft lips, disfiguring tumors and other debilitating conditions, all aboard a specially equipped medical vessel. Although it started out doing work in Central and South America, the organization currently focuses its mission in Africa.

After joining medical missions to 22 countries, the Bennetts now mostly help out at Mercy Ships headquarters in Garden Valley, Texas, training crew members in the safety and social skills they’ll need to survive those long trips living in close quarters.

Betty Lou was a public school teacher and administrator before she retired in 1986. Al served in the U.S. Navy and worked as a human resources executive at the Kennecott Corporation, a copper mining company, before his retirement at the end of 1985. Because of his marine background, the couple found the idea of working with a charity that delivers aid on a ship intriguing. And through their years of involvement, they’ve seen that Mercy Ships’ young surgical patients weren’t the only ones to benefit.

“We’ve felt that we have stayed healthy because we are doing things beyond ourselves,” said Al, adding that the couple’s focus on helping others has given them a greater sense of fulfillment and well-being.

They are not alone. According to a May 2012 report from the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS), 18.7 million adults ages 55 and older contributed more than three billion hours of service, on average, in their communities every year between 2008 and 2010. The report also found that retirees reap a host of physical, mental and emotional health benefits from volunteering.

Here are three positive effects they get from giving back.

1. Older adults who volunteer tend to live longer. Scientists aren’t sure of the causal relationship between volunteering and a longer life span, said Erwin Tan, MD, director of Senior Corps, a program of the CNCS that connects volunteers ages 55 and older with organizations they can help. Some studies show that volunteers are generally more physically active, so their charity work may be part of a healthier lifestyle, Tan said. The sense of purpose that a retiree feels when tutoring an elementary school student, for instance, can be a great motivator to get out of the house and get moving.

“It’s one thing to cancel a gym appointment, but it’s another thing to disappoint a child,” said Tan, whose former medical practice specialized in geriatrics and internal medicine.

2. Volunteering exercises the brain. Because it engages them in solving problems, volunteering may also improve the cognitive health of retirees, said Tan.

“It is about navigating how to help someone who’s homebound get medication,” Tan said. “How do you teach a child to read? These are things that are cognitively very stimulating.”

Your Estate Plan: Is a Trust Right for You?2009 study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health points to an increase in the maintenance of the brain’s executive function of volunteers compared to non-volunteers, Tan noted. That function, which involves the frontal lobe, controls things like problem solving and working memory—the short-term storage of knowledge needed for cognitive tasks like learning and reasoning.

3. Volunteers are more socially active and less lonely. They also tend to experience shorter periods of depression after the death of a loved one, according to a study referenced in the CNCS report. The report cited another study that found that older Americans who are experiencing stress or who are at high risk for isolation—such as those in rural areas—are especially likely to benefit from volunteering.

Social interaction is important for physical as well as emotional health, Tan noted. “Loneliness is an independent risk factor for both earlier death and morbidity,” he said.

As a geriatrician, Tan often prescribed volunteering as a way to boost his patients’ well-being. It seems that many older Americans are ready to take that medicine. The Northwestern Mutual 2015 Planning & Progress Study found that a majority of retirees are interested in supporting charitable organizations and seeking the sense of purpose that volunteer work can provide. Fifty-seven percent of retirees in the survey said they either volunteer or donate to a charity, or both. Fifty-one percent agreed they would “find a way to contribute positively to society.”

The Bennetts, who have now recruited their children and grandchildren to join them in their volunteer work, have no intention of slowing down.

“The things that we do keep us active, keep us fresh,” said Al Bennett. “They keep us involved with younger people. It’s been exciting.”

Sonya Stinson is a writer for print and web publications, businesses and nonprofit organizations. She writes about higher education, careers, small business, retirement and personal finance.

Originally published on Northwestern MutualVoice on Forbes.com.

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