Are you looking for a mental and physical boost during the pandemic? Try volunteering.
Adults over 50 who volunteer for about two hours per week have a substantially reduced risk of dying, higher levels of physical activity and an improved sense of well-being, a new study has found. And they develop fewer physical limitations than adults who don’t volunteer.
The study, published Thursday in the journal American Journal of Preventive Medicine, analyzed data from face-to-face interviews and survey responses from nearly 13,000 participants randomly selected from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal panel study of older Americans. Two groups of participants were tracked over four years in between 2010 to 2016.
While the research failed to find health benefits for specific diseases, the findings echoed results from other studies about the overall health benefits of helping others.
“Volunteering might help enrich our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and optimism, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depressive symptoms, and hopelessness,” said study author Eric Kim, a research scientist in the department of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
That’s certainly something we could all use right now, after months of sheltering from a frightening virus that is taking and devastating lives while endangering others.
“When we think about volunteering, our minds might automatically turn to a specific set of activities. However, activities that bring us in close physical proximity with others is risky during this time of pandemic,” Kim said. “Now is a wonderful opportunity to reimagine what volunteering could look like, perhaps in ways that allow us to remain physically distant from others.”
One of the easiest ways to do this, experts said, is by reaching out to your own neighbors, especially those who are elderly. Just knock on doors and ask how they are through screens, offering to run errands or have food delivered.
You can also help by shopping and getting takeout from local businesses, taking home a furry friend (pets have their own set of health benefits), donating blood and making masks, among others.
Online groups such as Nextdoor also virtually connect neighbors, offering an avenue to both reach out and ask for help. Facebook just launched a community help feature in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Canada, with plans to expand to other countries.
Nonprofit groups around and the world are rising to the occasion by expanding virtual volunteering options, a movement that began in the ’90s and continues to grow. Today it’s often called “e-volunteering.”
Points of Light, which calls itself the “world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service,” offers a search engine on its volunteer marketplace All for Good to find home-based volunteer projects across 37 countries across the globe, many of which are do-it-yourself projects.
The United Nations lists online volunteering activities supporting women and youth, many of which are coronavirus-specific virtual projects. Idealist, an online nonprofit group based in New York, has lists of various fundraising and volunteer opportunities around the world on its website.
Table Wisdom allows you to connect via video chat with an international student or an isolated person in another city who has been affected by social distancing.
Career Village uses online volunteers to share career advice with low-income youth over the internet, while Volunteer Match has ways to give back in health and medicine, children and youth, education and community building. Its site has a Covid-19 hub here.
Bookshare, which provides materials for disabled children and adults, needs virtual volunteers to take on tasks like scanning and proofreading book pages and categorizing and describing images. Translators without Borders needs people to translate medical texts and crisis responses.
The Be My Eyes app connects sighted people with blind and low-vision people who need help with everyday tasks. The idea began in 2012 in Denmark and is now available in over 180 languages. According to the Be My Eyesl website, its “the biggest online community for blind and low-vision people as well as one of the largest micro-volunteering platforms in the world.”
Need for mental health assistance
With so many people facing anxiety, depression and other mental health issues in the wake of the pandemic, the need for people to volunteer as crisis counselors is rising. Crisis Text Line relies on trained volunteer crisis counselors who work from home and use active listening, collaborative problem solving and safety planning to help those in need.
In New York City, one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus, volunteers are needed to call and talk with local seniors who are homebound and at risk for depression because they are isolated from friends, family and neighbors.
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These are just some of the amazing volunteer opportunities out there — there are many more in your own community, so reach out to your local charities, food banks and homeless shelters to see what they need and how you might help.
“I encourage people to think about their values and the causes they care most about,” Kim said.
“Whatever the cause, now is a moment in history when society needs your service the most. If you are able to do so while abiding by public health guidelines, you not only help heal the world, but you might help yourself as well.”