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Senior volunteers get unexpected health benefits

(NC) More than 1.8 million Canadian senior citizens volunteer because they want to give back and make an impact in their communities. Researchers have found that these seniors are getting much more than they expected: improved health as compared to those seniors who don't volunteer.

“When retirees give their time to others, their social networks and support systems increase and there's also an increase in their happiness, energy and vitality,” says Dr. Ben Gottlieb, a University of Guelph psychology professor who has been researching the positive health benefits of volunteering among seniors. “They experience better cardiovascular function, less arthritis pain, better lung function, lower stress, anxiety and depression and have an overall increase in self-esteem and sense of value.”

Leona Darling, 75, has been volunteering for the past 23 years. Her volunteer career started when she responded to an ad in the paper looking for Hospice volunteers and she has been with the organization ever since.

“When I started volunteering, I owned a business that required me to use a very specific set of skills so I sought opportunities that would allow me to learn new skills or maintain skills I wasn't using in my job,” she explains from her home in Guelph, Ontario. “For the past 16 years, I have been providing one-to-one grief support for individuals who have requested help from Hospice after they have lost a loved one. By listening to my clients, they have a safe, confidential place to voice their concerns. I feel what I do matters and get a lot of personal satisfaction out of it. I've actually been told I was a life saver and there is no greater compliment.”

Since retiring, Darling has taken on a second volunteer job with Chalmers Community Service Centre where she has seen the health benefits of volunteering in her peers. “We have a number of 80-year-old volunteers who are keeping young and active because they are out there giving back instead of sitting at home. Many people don't believe they're 80 because of their physical ability and sharp brains,” she said.

A 2005 study found that seniors who volunteered at least two hours per week (100 hours annually) showed slower declines in self-reported health and physical functioning, and lower mortality rates than those who did not volunteer.

In 2010, Canadian seniors collectively volunteered more than 372 million hours, according to Statistics Canada. Many of them say they hear about volunteer opportunities through family, friends, volunteer centres and online at

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