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By Joel Dresang

Even before my dad retired, he was a vigorous volunteer. He was an adult leader when my four older brothers and I were in scouting. He was involved in the American Legion, serving on the honor guard in his latter days. He delivered meals to shut-ins — even when he could have been on the receiving end. And when he no longer could wield a hammer with Habitat for Humanity, he’d walk through the construction sites and pick up nails. Typically, he was the first to arrive each morning – and one of the last to leave.

I don’t remember Dad talking about volunteering, but his example showed me it was consequential to him.

It turns out he was onto something.

Research suggests how volunteering helps us transition from work and how its benefits propel us through retirement. For instance:

  • An Americorps study found that 84% of older adults reported improved or stable health after two years of service.
  • In the same study, large percentages of volunteers said they were less depressed, felt less isolated and had improved companionship.
  • University of Michigan research found that volunteers over 70 who volunteered on average about two hours a week delayed age-related declines in health, functioning and depression.
  • Research in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work found volunteering helped protect against loneliness both for women and men.
  • A study reported in the Psychological Bulletin showed that volunteering increased the social, physical and cognitive activity that leads to improved functioning.
  • A report by the American Psychological Association suggested volunteering can lengthen lives.
  • A recent article in the Journals of Gerontology explained that volunteers tend to have fewer signs of depression, in part because being a volunteer can help establish and maintain friendships.

After we’re no longer working for our money — when we rely on our money to work for us – volunteering is a healthy way to capitalize on the time we have left. We can extend our years and accentuate our days. Volunteering is one way to both sustain our health and make our retirement more purposeful.

My personal history with volunteering pales to my father’s. When I was a journalist, I felt conflicted about getting involved with organizations. Aside from some work for my union, I confined my volunteer hours to my daughters’ schools and their extracurricular activities when they were young.

My last job as a newspaper reporter had me following people displaced from their jobs during the Great Recession. They showed me the value of volunteer work. Volunteering helped job seekers practice skills and feel more connected; it gave them valuable opportunities to network.

Impactful activities and social interaction are vital to retirees as well. And when it comes to finding a volunteering gig, much of the advice for job seekers applies to those in retirement. Here are some suggestions from Indeed, the employment website:

  1. Decide which causes you care about.
  2. Identify the skills and knowledge you can offer.
  3. Create a volunteer resume.
  4. Determine how often you can volunteer.
  5. Research volunteer opportunities in your community.
  6. Consider using a volunteer site.
  7. Get all the relevant details for the volunteer position.
  8. Apply for the volunteer position.
  9. Follow up after you apply.
  10. Complete any required training.
  11. Begin with a limited commitment.
  12. Be professional.
  13. Regularly assess your volunteer experiences.

As with most explorations, it helps to start with what and who you know, but also consider clearinghouses listing a variety of volunteer opportunities. United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County offers looks at positions and organizations you might otherwise have missed, as does United Way of Wisconsin and Serve Wisconsin.

In the recent U.S. Surgeon General report “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” volunteering figures highly as a way to attain the healing effects of social connection and community. Following my father’s example, I imagine finding other service organizations to get involved with when my working days are over.

Other Money Talk articles from Joel Dresang

Since I left journalism, I have worked on the boards of a few nonprofits. I also volunteer with a community-oriented storytelling organization. I’m fortunate because my employer offers some paid time off for volunteer work, which lets me get involved in the community without quitting my day job.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

Learn more
Rust in retirement can affect finances, by Joel Dresang
Socializing Improves Retirees’ Physical, Mental Health, from the Center for Retirement Research
Purpose in Life, from Midlife in the United States: A National Study of Health & Well-Being
Advancing age, declining capacity, by Joel Dresang
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(initially posted May 26, 2023)

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