A Volunteering Resource Guide for Older Adults
Volunteers donate their time and talents to help communities thrive. Although many volunteers work with nonprofit organizations, informal volunteering — helping community members by dropping off meals, running errands and performing other services — also has many benefits for communities around the world. Seniors interested in volunteering have a wide range of opportunities, from fostering animals to tutoring children who need help improving their reading skills. This guide provides an overview of the many service areas available, the benefits of volunteering and links to national resources for older adults interested in donating their time for a good cause.
Volunteering in America Today
The Corporation for National & Community Service reports that more than 30% of American adults volunteered for a nonprofit organization in 2018. Volunteers donated nearly seven billion hours of their time, which represents an economic value of $167 billion.
In 2018, Utah, Minnesota and Oregon were the top three states in the nation in terms of the percentage of residents who volunteer.
- In Utah, nearly 1.6 million volunteers contributed 133.9 million hours of service in 2018. This volunteer service was estimated to be worth approximately $3.2 billion. Some of the most popular service areas for Utah volunteers include teaching or tutoring, mentoring youth and collecting, distributing, preparing or serving food.
- Nearly two million Minnesota residents volunteered in 2018, totaling 137.2 million hours of service and an estimated economic impact of $3.3 billion. For Minnesotans, the most popular service areas include fundraising, engaging in general labor and collecting, distributing, preparing or serving food.
- Oregon residents gave 177.7 million hours of service in 2018, creating an estimated economic impact of $4.2 billion. Fundraising, mentoring youth and collecting, distributing, preparing or serving food were among the most popular service areas.
Volunteer Service Areas
Opportunities abound for animal lovers to donate their time to rescue organizations all over the United States. One of the most common ways to help animals is to volunteer to walk dogs, clean kennels or perform other tasks at an organization like the Humane Society or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Volunteering at a shelter gives older adults the opportunity to spend time with dogs, cats and other animals without taking on the full-time responsibility of caring for the animals at home.
Volunteering at a shelter isn't the only option, however. For seniors with the time and patience to raise puppies, kittens, bunnies or other pets, fostering is a great way to make a difference. Fostering has several benefits for animals, including the opportunity to live in a house or apartment instead of having to stay in a loud, crowded shelter. Foster families are responsible for providing veterinary care, feeding and exercising animals as appropriate and reinforcing positive behaviors.
For seniors who don't feel comfortable fostering a pet, volunteering to transport pets between rescue organizations is another rewarding way to get involved. In some cases, animals in one state are rescued from abusive environments or hoarding situations. Local shelters may not be able to accommodate them all, prompting rescue organizations in other states to agree to care for the animals until they're adopted. These organizations need volunteers to pick up the animals and drive them to their destinations. Some rescues even have transport chains to make it easier for volunteers to participate. If an animal is going from California to Texas, for example, it would be difficult for one volunteer to make the long trip. A transport chain uses multiple volunteers to drive a few hours each, ensuring that the animal makes it to its final destination safely.
Arts and Culture
For seniors who love music, live theater and museums, it's easy to get involved. Many music and theater organizations need volunteers to serve as ushers for live performances. These organizations may also need volunteers to sell tickets, hand out programs or complete other tasks. Many museums have docent programs that are perfect for older adults. Docents typically give museum tours and provide information about exhibits. For older adults with artistic skills of their own, teaching classes at a community center or helping with the art program at a local school is a rewarding way to pass the time.
Children and Youth
Many nonprofit organizations focus on providing services to children and teens living in poverty or struggling to overcome challenges related to living under unfavorable circumstances. Young people can benefit from the wisdom of older adults as they try to navigate their way through the education system and make good decisions for the future. One way to make a positive difference in the life of a child is to volunteer for a local literacy program or tutoring program. Volunteers help children improve their reading skills and overcome academic challenges.
For older adults looking to combine altruism with a love of travel, it's possible to volunteer to help children in another country. Nonprofit organizations have programs to help children in Sri Lanka, Romania, Tanzania and other countries who are living in poverty and need to develop knowledge and skills to help them improve their standard of living. Some organizations also run overseas programs to help young refugees adjust to their new living environments and recover from the trauma of fleeing their home countries.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, rising surface temperatures are likely to increase the intensity of future natural disasters. As a result, nonprofit organizations may need more volunteers to respond in the wake of hurricanes, tropical storms, earthquakes, wildfires and other disasters. Organizations such as the American Red Cross, Convoy of Hope and Feeding America help victims of natural disasters by organizing clean-up efforts, providing food and clothing, arranging for emergency housing and setting up fundraisers to provide ongoing financial assistance.
Seniors can have a positive impact on their communities by volunteering for organizations that aim to clean up litter, increase awareness of environmental problems and promote the conservation of natural resources. The Adopt a Highway program allows corporations and nonprofit organizations to "adopt" local stretches of highway. Volunteers are responsible for picking up trash along each adopted section of the road, making their communities more appealing. The National Park Service operates the Volunteers-in-Parks program, which gives Americans the opportunity to volunteer in places like Big Cypress National Preserve and Big Bend National Park. Volunteers for this program carry out a wide range of duties. For example, some parks have volunteer hosts available to greet visitors and answer questions about park amenities.
Health and Medicine
Volunteering is a great way for retired doctors, nurses and medical technicians to maintain their skills while helping their communities. In the United States, many people can't afford the cost of monthly health insurance premiums, forcing them to rely on free clinics for basic medical care. These clinics, operated by churches, community organizations and national nonprofits, typically provide treatment for routine illnesses. Some provide free or low-cost diagnostic testing and medications. Volunteers in Medicine operates free clinics throughout the United States, providing care to the uninsured and underinsured. Volunteer doctors and nurses offer their services on a part-time basis, giving people access to preventive care and treatment for conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma.
Seniors without experience in the medical field can still get involved by volunteering to answer the telephone, update medical charts, greet patients and perform other clerical duties at a free or low-cost medical clinic.
Civic-minded seniors can contribute to their communities by volunteering for political campaigns and donating their time to nonprofit organizations involved in helping Americans exercise their voting rights. Campaign volunteers are needed to make telephone calls, visit constituents at their homes, send mailings to local voters and solicit donations. Communities also need volunteers to work at the polls, help people register to vote and provide transportation to the polls for voters who don't drive.
Benefits of Volunteering
The Corporation for National & Community Service compiled the results of several research studies on the effects of volunteering. According to the report, volunteering has several measurable health benefits for older adults. In one study, researchers determined that people who volunteer or provide some type of social support to others have lower rates of mortality than people who don't. The effect was consistent even when the researchers controlled for variables such as age, gender and socioeconomic status.
Adults often derive a sense of purpose from activities such as working and raising children. People who don't stay engaged in their communities as they age may lose this sense of purpose once they retire and their children are grown. In contrast, older adults who volunteer continue to have a sense of purpose and direction, which may reduce the risk of depression.
Volunteering may even be beneficial for older adults living with chronic illnesses. In one study, researchers examined the effects of serving as a peer volunteer for people suffering from chronic pain. They found that volunteers reported reduced levels of disability after they started providing support to other people with the same conditions. Another study examined the effects of volunteering on people with a history of heart attack. Those who volunteered after having their heart attacks reported lower rates of depression than those who didn't.
Volunteers also experience a variety of social benefits when they donate their time and talents in service of others. For older adults who live alone, volunteering provides opportunities to socialize with peers and make valuable connections with other community members. Volunteering is also a great way for older married couples to spend time together while making a difference in their communities. For some adults, volunteering also helps combat loneliness.
National Volunteer Resources
American Red Cross
The American Red Cross needs volunteers to carry out humanitarian work in the United States and abroad. Volunteers provide disaster relief, assist with blood drives and help the American Red Cross raise funds to support its programs.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America pairs adult volunteers with children in need of mentoring. For older adults still in the workforce, BBBSA also has a workplace mentoring program, which gives children and teens the opportunity to learn about professionalism while shadowing their mentors at work.
Citizen Corps uses volunteers to protect communities against natural disasters, acts of terrorism and other threats. Volunteers for community emergency response teams (CERTs) are trained in fire safety, disaster medical operations and light search and rescue, preparing them to render aid to people affected by disasters.
Junior Achievement delivers programs on work readiness, financial literacy and entrepreneurship to students in elementary and secondary schools throughout the United States. Volunteers deliver course content and interact with students, helping the organization achieve its goals.
The Sierra Club aims to protect the planet's natural resources by promoting conservation and engaging in grassroots political activism. Some volunteers lead outdoor experiences in their communities, while others write letters to legislators, send messages to community members about urgent environmental issues and serve as moderators for Sierra Club workshops.
Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
SPCA shelters throughout the country need volunteers to walk dogs, clean cages, provide foster care and perform other tasks related to the care of rescue animals.
Ronald McDonald House Charities
Ronald McDonald House Charities provides low-cost accommodations to families who must travel far from home for their children to receive medical treatment. Volunteers perform a wide variety of duties, from stocking the kitchen with snacks and beverages to checking in guests at the reception desk.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
The Department of Veterans Affairs relies on volunteers to help deliver services to the millions of veterans who have served in the five branches of the military. Volunteers work in hospitals, hospice centers, nursing homes and other facilities operated by the VA.
U.S. Election Assistance Commission
Volunteers interested in working the polls on Election Day should contact the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Although this is typically a paid position, poll workers can elect to donate their time.
Volunteers in Medicine
Volunteers in Medicine operates free clinics all over the United States. Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals donate their time to provide care to patients who don't have health insurance as well as patients who have insurance but can't afford to pay their copays or deductibles. VIM clinics also hire volunteers to answer the telephone, file charts and perform other clerical duties.
Ways to Find Volunteer Opportunities
Seniors interested in helping their communities while enjoying all the benefits volunteering has to offer should use the following sites to search for opportunities throughout the United States. State and local governments are also an excellent source of information about volunteer openings.