Volunteerism: One Remedy for Loneliness in Aging

“Why, that scarf looks absolutely lovely on you! I bet you’ll wear it nearly every day. Tell your friends where you bought it: We have so many styles, I’m sure your friends can find something this pretty, too!” Grace is in her element now, working the floor, albeit a small floor, in a local nursing home gift shop. And a fine job she does, too, with her energy and sales skills honed over many years of devotion to retail. This is a new gig for her, though, and a much needed one.

Time on Her Hands

At 82, she has been juggling two part-time jobs to bolster her social security income. Maybe even more importantly, the jobs kept her days busy and ensured she interacted with others. That was until a few months ago, when one of the shops closed. Her working hours were already abbreviated, so her anxiety over the loss of income seemed exaggerated. What made Grace most anxious was the new-found time on her hands: time that had been spent getting ready for work, driving to work, making those regular, familiar stops along the way and again after work. A few hours on the job each week were but a small portion of her daily activity. She now worried incessantly over minutiae. She began making phone calls to friends and acquaintances, too many phone calls. The second part-time job (even less hours than the first) did not occupy enough of her day to make her feel engaged, connected and vital. The more free time she had, the lonelier she became.

Volunteering is the Solution

Thomas Penney, in his blog for Business Week, suggests that loneliness in the elderly can be more harmful than even smoking. Depression and despair can set in. Remedy? Work! But as Grace found, a job is a hard thing to find in this economy. Solution? Volunteering. In Grace’s case, she was able to take advantage of an opportunity utilizing her fine sales skills in which she takes enormous pride. The hours are an even greater commitment than the job she lost, and now she has a lilt back in her step and a smile on her face. There’s a bonus, too, in the self-satisfaction that she is helping others, many whom, she acknowledges, are much less fortunate than she. She hasn’t mentioned the loss of income in weeks.

Older Adults Volunteering

During April, National Volunteer Month, there will be plenty of press reminding us all of opportunities to fill free time. For starters, Susan Krueger recently listed a few ideas; some additional ideas for volunteering can be found here. You, too, may have clients who could benefit from giving to others, such as Connie Nelson, who found such joy in playing piano and hosting sing-alongs at an adult day care, or the church group of older women who pack goody boxes. Thanks to net_efekt for sharing the picture on flikr.com that we used in this article. Also big thanks to the work of Scott Talans for editing this article.

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Sharon Belloff is the JHELP ACCESS Suburban Project Coordinator for CJE SeniorLife in Chicago. Assisting those over the age of 60 find resources, linking folks to private and public benefits and providing a myriad services embodies much of Sharon’s work. An L.C.P.C., she graduated with honors from National-Louis University with a B.A. in Applied Behavioral Science and, later, a master’s degree in Human Services. Her work in aging began as an internship with Advocate Health Care, and she has never left the field. Since 9/11, Sharon has been a volunteer with the USO of Illinois and is a regular volunteer with the Highland Park Public Library, both working with its in-house Book Nook resale shop or assisting with summer reading programs for children. The daughter of two writers, she has always sought enjoyment through authoring and editing articles for newsletters, brochures and flyers.

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