One naturally looks forward to retiring after years of working hard to earn a living and support a family. While some retirees view this stage of life as a time to take it easy, others are staying busy through volunteer work. And they are discovering that it pays dividends.
Ed Feldstein is always on the go. At 73, the former public school teacher says he is far more active now that he’s retired.
“There aren’t enough hours in a day,” Feldstein lamented, taking a few moments for an interview before zipping off to an appointment.
Among his myriad activities, Feldstein volunteers at the Marcus Jewish Community Center (MJCC) in Dunwoody. He started a pickleball group with about 30 players who meet a few days each week at the center.
Pickleball is a hybrid of tennis and badminton, with a twist of wiffle ball. It looks a lot like tennis but played on a badminton court with a plastic ball and wooden paddles. Feldstein said pickleball, named for the cocker spaniel of the family that invented the game in the 1960s, is a fast-paced sport that improves the health of the (mostly) seniors who participate at the center—one of them 98 years old.
Feldstein taught social studies for 45 years in New York, New Jersey and Georgia before retiring. He now uses his knowledge and teaching skills to moderate a seniors’ discussion group at the MJCC. Each week, he emails topics to the two dozen members so they can prepare for the lively discussion ahead.
There are an estimated 18.7 million older adults across America who contribute more than three billion hours of service to their communities, according to new data from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency that oversees the president’s national call-to-service initiative.
“Older Americans bring a lifetime of skills and experience that can be tapped to meet community challenges,” said Dr. Erwin Tan, director of Senior Corps, a program of the CNCS.
Seniors contribute in numerous ways through volunteerism. Elisabeth Nark, manager of DeKalb Medical Foundation Volunteer Services, oversees a corps of more than 200 active retired volunteers. Their volunteer work ranges from restocking supplies and working in the hospital’s gift shop to sorting and delivering mail.
“They perform vital work,” Nark said. One important role that should not be overlooked is comforting and communicating with the hospital’s patients, she emphasized. Often, the doctors and nurses cannot spend quality time with their patients. So volunteers fill the gap. “Many of the volunteers are very social and like talking to people,” she said. “And the patients love it.”
Eighteen months ago, Anne Burr went through chemotherapy at DeKalb Medical for breast cancer. She now volunteers at the hospital’s radiation department once a week, where she speaks with others who are going through radiation treatment.
“I help people who are going through the same thing that I went through. They don’t have a clue about what is going to happen, and that could be a scary,” she said. “The doctors could only give so much, but I could relate to them—especially to women with breast cancer.”
Burr retired at 73 years old from her administrative job in the accounts receivable department of a small company. “I sat at work all day,” she reflected, “but God gave me a mouth to speak, and I intend on using it to help others.”
During her daylong shift, in which dozens of patients arrive for ongoing chemotherapy treatments, Burr chats with them. Her objective is to “try to get them to laugh and lift their spirit about what they’re going through.” After completing treatment, she gives them a handmade greeting card with words of encouragement.
During the past year, she has touched many lives. Her example has also inspired others to engage in volunteer activities. Her husband decided to join the hospital’s volunteer corps as a courtesy car driver, transporting patients from one area of the hospital to another.
For many of these seniors, volunteering gives them the opportunity to do something they enjoy while learning new skills. Stanley Bernstein, 77, recalled noticing several years ago that the MJCC’s children’s museum was idle for weeks. After getting the OK, he took the initiative to build exhibits for the museum. Not long after, he transitioned from building museum displays to serving as master carpenter on theater sets for the center’s several stage productions.
Although praised for his craftsmanship, he is quick to point out that he is not a carpenter. “I had always worked in retail,” said Bernstein, who owned and operated the bridal shop Bride Beautiful in Sandy Springs. “My paternal grandfather was a carpenter, and my father did some carpentry also. I just know how to do it.”
Bernstein, who has also volunteered with Habit for Humanity, the nonprofit organization that builds affordable houses for low-income families, said he knew nothing about building stage sets but learned from helping the theater’s set builder.
“You can’t just vegetate when it’s time to retire,” Bernstein said. “Giving something back to the community is the best thing to do. If I didn’t volunteer, the MJCC would have to hire someone.” Bernstein also volunteers as a court bailiff. “It saves the city a lot of money,” he added.
Feldstein admitted that it is sometimes hard to get out of bed in the morning because of the aches and pains that come with aging. “But knowing I have volunteer work to do keeps me going,” he said. “It feels great to see people smile and know that I could provide a service that they need. I’m benefiting from volunteering, so it’s sort of a selfish thing.”
Each volunteer mentioned receiving unintended rewards that are, in many ways, more valuable than money.
A number of studies suggest that doing volunteer work (more than other types of work activities) benefits seniors. One study, conducted by UCLA researchers and reported in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, showed that volunteering delayed frailty in the aging process.
Researchers studied groups of seniors who did volunteer work, provided childcare services or engaged in paid employment. They all benefited from staying active. However, after accounting for levels of physical and cognitive functions, only volunteering was associated with lower rates of frailty.
Another study, conducted by Arizona State University psychologists, found that volunteer work is especially beneficial for older adults with functional limitations (trouble performing daily tasks such as preparing meals).
They found that “among older adults with high functional limitations, the risk of death is approximately three times greater for those who did little or no volunteering, relative to those who volunteer more frequently.”
According to the researchers, “Volunteering may offset the loss of purpose in life that occurs with aging and that may be amplified by functional limitations,” they write. Also, volunteering gives seniors a sense of competence and accomplishment that enhances health.
There are many opportunities to volunteer. It may take some thought to find the right one. But a common recommendation is to volunteer in an area of interest. As Bernstein put it, “You’ve got to like what you’re doing.”
Some seniors find ways to use the skills and knowledge they have acquired in their professional career. Bernstein pointed to the example of his friend who was doctor for many years and now volunteers to do medical screenings.
For retired seniors, this stage of their life is also an opportunity to develop their talents and explore interests they have had for years. “Fill your dance card with things to do,” Feldstein urged. “This is a chance to live your dream!”