Health Column: Give a little, get a lot — volunteer

April is National Volunteer Month, and a time to celebrate volunteerism. I’ve learned through my experience in health care and also from some current research that volunteers benefit not only from the good feelings they get from giving of themselves but also from improvements in their own health because of their volunteerism. There’s a lot of evidence to support this theory.

Studies such as a report on “Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research,” published by the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, D.C., show that volunteers benefit from their good work, improving their own physical and mental health. The study found that the positive effect of volunteering for adults 65 and older results from the personal sense of accomplishment the individual gains from his or her volunteer activities. An analysis of research data found that individuals over 70 who volunteered approximately 100 hours a year had fewer self-reported declines in health and functioning levels, experienced lower levels of depression and lived longer.

“There is now a convergence of research leading to the conclusion that helping others makes people happier and healthier,” one study director wrote.

Longevity, functionality, peace of mind and social capital are the key health benefits of volunteering. The term social capital comprises the advantages of associating with others. Volunteers belong to a connected group of people who get to know each other well and develop camaraderie.

At San Simeon, we have more than 60 volunteers who complement our caring for 120 residents plus Adult Day Health Care registrants. I estimate that together our volunteers log about 100 hours a week. They are people from our community, of all ages, from high school students to retirees. Many are family members of residents who stay after a visit to spend time as volunteers.

Volunteers in a health care facility like ours transport residents throughout the building to the beauty salon, the eye doctor or to physical therapy. Some assist with arts and crafts and recreation games, and they accompany residents on outings. Others enjoy shopping for residents. An important job volunteers do here is providing companionship, while being there to assist residents with small tasks or reading to residents or helping them write letters. The residents love and depend on the volunteers, to whom they often become attached. Clearly, any organization that cares for people with health needs could not carry on without such volunteers.

In this difficult economy, there are severe financial pressures being placed on health service organizations at the same time as population trends indicate a great need for health care services.

It’s a comfort to know that these same trends could have the positive outcome of increased numbers of people who are willing to volunteer their time to take care of others. Let’s keep that spirit of volunteerism alive and healthy.

Priscilla DeMasi is executive director and administrator at San Simeon by the Sound Center for Nursing, Rehabilitation and Adult Day Care in Greenport.