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Volunteerism as the New Rx

Seniors improve health and happiness through community service

Each morning Luz Sherman wakes up, she is on a mission. She rises early, walks to the nearest bus stop or train station, and makes an hour-long commute to Richard T. Castro Elementary School – a routine she has followed faithfully three days a week for the last three years.

Ninety percent of the students at the elementary school, located in the Westwood neighborhood, speak Spanish as their first language; 95% come from families that are considered low-income.

Sherman works in a third-grade classroom as one of Volunteers of America Colorado's “Foster Grandparents,” aiding the teacher and working with students individually to improve their English and build literacy skills. She also serves as a friend and mentor, accompanying the children to lunch and playing with them at recess. It is a volunteer role that she takes very seriously, even arriving before the students many days to do research and class preparation in the school’s library.

Sherman, who will turn 81 years old next month, says, “You must prepare in order to make a difference.”

It may seem like a lot to take on for someone her age, but she has been a dedicated volunteer for many years and maintains that it’s an important piece of her life – something that brings her great happiness in addition to keeping her mind and body active. “Working with the children gives me energy. My mind feels renewed.”

Studies show that Sherman is not alone in these feelings. According to Senior Corps, 78% of seniors struggling with symptoms of depression said they felt less depressed after two years of volunteering; 88% reported a decrease in feelings of isolation. Additionally, 84% reported improved or stable health in the same two-year time period.

For some seniors, the improvements seen after volunteering can be life-changing.

Jackie Norton is a 79-year old resident at one of Volunteers of America’s affordable housing properties for seniors and an avid volunteer in the Activities Department. Three years ago, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects her balance and requires her to use a walker most of the time.

Although the diagnosis was devastating, Norton chose to move forward with positivity, making immediate changes in her lifestyle.

She contacted Volunteers of America Colorado’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program and started organizing exercise, bingo, and craft classes in her apartment building. Since then, she has created a small, yet social community of seniors that meet for weekly events focused on having fun and being active. Taking on this volunteer endeavor has also helped her lose 65 pounds, improving her overall health and mobility significantly.

“Volunteering has changed my life,” Norton says. “So many people at this age think that their life is over. But volunteering has been like a second career for me – it brings me the energy and joy I need to get out of bed and keep on going every day.”

Contrary to this, seniors who are generally inactive and don’t participate in social activities are more likely to experience various health issues including depression, obesity, prediabetes, strokes, and heart problems.

Dr. Michelle Glasgow, M.D. of Kaiser Permanente confirms that “volunteering is exercise without thinking about it.” Most of the volunteer positions available through Volunteers of America require some level of physical activity whether it be engaging with children in a classroom, delivering meals to homebound seniors, leading an education class, or gardening.

Feelings of accomplishment and validation, social stimulation, and connecting to the community are some of the positive mental and emotions outcomes that are experienced through volunteering. Learning new skills through activity also improves brain power, dexterity, and fine motor skills.

“When seniors come and see me about depression, I talk to them about volunteering whether it’s at the hospital’s front desk, serving food at a shelter – just anything that gets you out in the community. I prescribe them to go out and volunteer,” Glasgow shares. “Volunteerism is the ‘new Rx,’ best taken three to five times a week.”

To find out more about Volunteers of America Colorado’s Foster Grandparent Program, visit www.voacolorado.org/volunteer-opportunities/foster-grandparent-program. To find out more about Volunteers of America Colorado's Retired Senior Volunteer Program, visit www.voacolorado.org/volunteer-opportunities/retired-senior-volunteer-program-rsvp.