People often decide to volunteer to make a difference and improve lives other than their own – and an ever-growing body of research suggests that volunteering offers health benefits that reach beyond the conventionally recognized social and emotional advantages.
“There is definitely a connection between service and better physical and mental health. I know it is happening, but it is hard to articulate what ‘it’ is,” said Mark Rentfrow, a physical therapist for the past seven years at Alice’s Clubhouse Memory Care Day Center in Mount Pleasant.
Results of a study published in BMC Public Health, a peer-reviewed journal that publishes articles on the epidemiology of disease and the understanding of all aspects of public health, demonstrates that “other-oriented” volunteering has significantly stronger effects on mental and physical health, life satisfaction and social well-being when compared to self-oriented volunteering.
Other-oriented volunteering has altruistic features and demonstrates concern and care for other’s needs, such as health care or education work, the study reveals. In self-oriented volunteering, the volunteer’s motivation is defined by the desire to develop social networks, acquire skills or evade personal problems.
These findings suggest that the benefits of volunteering are greater when done for the sake of others and not with the expectation of compensation; however, that does not mean there is no “pay.”
“I get a lot of what I like to call psychic income out of working with our participants, particularly a big smile, laughing, cheering,” said Rick Blinn in Respite Care Charleston’s Volunteer Spotlight. “Any kind of indication that they are really enjoying what’s going on gives me a whole lot of enjoyment.”
Individuals who volunteer may experience a lower rate of mortality than those who do not, even when considering physical health, according to an analysis of data from the Longitudinal Study of Aging. This correlation demonstrates a connection between wellness and volunteering.
“As corny as it sounds, our work is driven by love – plain and simple,” said Sara Perry of Respite Care Charleston. “It’s incredibly rewarding work, and life doesn’t get much better than that.”
Diane Sancho, MSW, executive director of Alice’s Clubhouse, has seen firsthand the positive effects of service among “givers” with dementia.
“We have learned that people who were givers in their lives want to keep giving even as their minds fade,” Sancho explained. “When they can give, or when they receive kindness, there are positive effects on their well-being every day.”
Sancho recalled a previous mayor who, despite her dementia, continued to advocate for women’s rights – as she had done most of her life – into her mid 80s. The continued advocacy activated her mind.
A retired anesthesiologist who was used to putting people at ease continues to put Alice’s Clubhouse members at ease with his words, and a gentleman’s piano playing improves as he plays for others.
“His music is magic to everyone, and he feels good giving back,” Sancho said.
The observations of Sancho and others continue to be reflected in studies of patients experiencing health conditions and hoping to prevent health complications. In a study by the American Society of Pain Management Nurses, individuals suffering from chronic pain experienced a decline in pain intensity, levels of disability and depression when they served as peer volunteers for others in chronic pain. Narrative data notes that a feeling of connection and sense of purpose emerged.
As for disease prevention, findings suggest volunteerism may be an effective, non-pharmacological intervention for hypertension, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, stroke and mortality. A Carnegie Mellon University study confirmed that of 1,654 participants between the ages of 51 and 91, those who had volunteered 200 hours or more in a year were 40% less likely to develop hypertension than nonvolunteers.
Extending this observation on volunteering and heart health, an analysis by AmeriCorps using health and volunteering data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that “states with higher volunteer rates are more likely to have lower rates of mortality and less incidence of heart disease.”
In South Carolina, 30.8% of residents volunteer, which is 32nd among the 50 states. The death rate for heart disease in 2020 was 31st.
“For some, it’s a way of giving back to an organization that served someone they loved. For others, volunteering is a way of ‘paying it forward,’” Perry said.
“Whether the kindness manifests by pulling out a chair for someone or helping them when they walk, the social aspect makes a huge difference with regard to their health and mental status,” Sancho added.
By Molly Sherman