Study: Volunteers reap health benefits

Two events, less than a month apart, were shocking in very different ways. 

The first was the release of a report from Statistics Canada that said we Canadians — who pride ourselves on our caring involvement in the community — were shirking our vital role as volunteers to charitable organizations.

In 2000, the pool of people offering their unpaid time, energy and services had plummeted to 6.5 million, a shortfall of one million in the past four years. 

The second event was the tragedy of September 11th, when terrorists attacked the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

Volunteers needed
Betty Steele had an informed response to that first piece of news and a fascinating reaction to the second.

She is the regent of the C.W. Jefferys chapter of the International Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE), a chapter she founded in Toronto three decades ago. A former news editor of Marketing magazine, she’s the author of My Heart, My Hands: A Celebration of Volunteerism in Canada.

Published two years ago, it’s the only recent Canadian book on the subject of volueer organizations like the Federated Women’s Institutes and the Lions Clubs.

When she first heard the figures documenting the decline of volunteerism, she was “absolutely horrified — when you realize the incredible things volunteers can do, how they can change the world.”

But she was not surprised: “It’s the times. All the clubs are suffering terribly for lack of membership. With all the women working now, it’s a different world.”

Next page: Glimmer of hope

Glimmer of hope
Then, as she tried to absorb the terrorist atrocity in the United States, Steele saw one slight glimmer of hope to soften the horror.

She was struck not only by the heroic efforts of local firefighters and police on the scenes of the calamity, but also by the heartening flurry of Canadians volunteering in its wake.

Emergency services personnel crossed the border in a bid to assist in the rescue efforts at the World Trade Center. Ordinary folk opened their hearts and homes to thousands of U.S.-bound passengers diverted to Canadian airports. And people across the country jammed blood donor clinics to bolster plasma supplies down south.

“I think people who are not volunteers right now have really seen what volunteerism means,” Steele says. “This will awaken them.”

She expects that among those who give of themselves to worthy causes will be an increasing number of the 50-plus, especially retired people like her who presumably have more time to devote to unpaid activities.

Fallout from attacks
That’s certainly the hope of Paddy Bowen, executive director of Volunteer Canada, whose members include 86 volunteer centres in nine provinces.

“I believe September 11th has engendered a spiritual response as much as a physical response: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ‘Am I living the life I want to live?’ ‘Am I straight with my community?’ In serving others, we often find meaning.”

While only one-fifth of Canadian seniors participate in organized volunteering, they contribute on average more hours a year than any other age group (202 compared with 160 for those aged 55 to 64).

“Older volunteers are the mainstay of many voluntary organizations,” Bowen says, “and provide much of the informal volunteering that goes on in our society. But we have to challenge the voluntary community to think how they’re going to reach out to older Canadians who have so much to give.”

Next page: Ways to volunteer

Ways to volunteer 
There are three major ways of volunteering:

  • Formally, we can work with established institutions such as hospitals, service clubs such as Rotary and the IODE, and non-profit agencies such as the Canadian Executive Services Organization.
  • Informally, we can be caregivers to relatives and friends — individuals helping individuals without any organization in-between.

It’s estimated that in the industrialized world, family and friends provide anywhere from 75 per cent to 85 per cent of all personal care to ailing and disabled seniors.

  • And while still employed, we can also volunteer through our workplace.

Statistics Canada says employer-supported volunteerism rose to 27 per cent last year from 22 per cent in 1977.

Companies donate time
One in four companies now encourages employees to donate their time by adapting their working hours or giving them paid days off.

For instance: When a seasonal slump last winter forced a plant shutdown at Loewen Windows in Steinbach, Man., 50 workers took advantage of an enlightened company offer. They got credit for full days’ work at their regular wage if they helped dismantle a house in Winnipeg for an international charitable agency called Habitat for Humanity.

It’s pretty obvious how organizations and individuals benefit from the help of unpaid workers. The formal volunteer work done in Canada alone is the equivalent of 549,000 full-time jobs and roughly $14 billion in economic value.

Volunteering boosts health
But what’s in it for the volunteers themselves?

The surprising answer is that more and more studies show that volunteering is actually good for the health of older men and women.

Dr. Neena Chappell, director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Victoria, published the major Canadian review of the literature on the subject in 1999.

In Volunteering and Healthy Aging: What We Know, she wrote: “The volunteer literature provides further evidence that those who volunteer receive health benefits from this activity.”

In an interview, she said: “I wouldn’t want to claim that it’s a panacea but volunteering is certainly a part of the fountain of youth.”

Less depression, dysfunction
Her report mentions studies that reveal volunteers have:

  • Better health than non-volunteers
  • Significantly higher satisfaction with their lives
  • A stronger will to live
  • Fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and physical dysfunction because of disturbed emotions.

She admits that there’s a debate about whether volunteering maintains and enhances well-being-or whether those who are in better health and happier simply volunteer more.

What’s clear, she has said, is that “a lot of the benefit comes from being in touch with others and having an impact on their lives.”

And for people over 50, Betty Steele says, “Volunteerism can be exciting. You feel part of the world. You are still important. Because once you stop mattering you’ve had it.”