My mother is a retiree in her 80s. When people ask her what keeps her so healthy, she explains that she keeps busy with activities that truly matter to her. One of her favorites: Volunteering as a docent at the local art museum. She learns about each new exhibit and gets to know it so well that she can lead tours. Volunteering is a kind of “medicine.” It keeps people—even those who aren’t retired—mentally alert and engaged with other people, all of which contribute to their overall health. But all volunteer experiences are not alike. Based on current research, there seems to be a “right” way to volunteer—and when that happens, it can help you, too, no matter how old you are. Find out how to make your volunteer experience work for you…

BEING NEEDED AND VALUED

As study after study has found, we get a lot when we give. In 2007, the federal government’s Corporation for National and Community Service evaluated the health benefits of volunteering. Volunteering offers a variety of benefits to people of different age groups. For younger adults, it expands their skill set and introduces them to new situations and people that they might not otherwise encounter. While volunteering, people of all ages can experience what’s known as a “helper’s high,” a feeling of euphoria often followed by an ongoing feeling of well-being created through the act of giving.

Older adults who volunteer also reap distinct health benefits, even more so than their younger counterparts. The 2007 government report, which looked at 730 studies, found that adults over age 60 experienced improved mental and physical health, greater satisfaction with life and less depression. Older adults who volunteer live longer than adults who don’t volunteer—they also have a greater sense of purpose and accomplishment and improved functional ability, and they tend to be less lonely and isolated than nonvolunteering adults.

Recent research bears this out. A 2011 study by Penn State College of Medicine researchers found that volunteering in a kindergarten class helped older adults with mild-to-moderate dementia by lowering their stress and enhancing their quality of life, relationships and self-esteem.

HOW TO BENEFIT FROM VOLUNTEERING

Research shows that for adults to reap the psychological and physical health benefits of volunteering, certain criteria must be met…

Amount of time. Health benefits from volunteering become evident for both younger and older adults after a certain “volunteering threshold,” as researchers call it, has been met. Volunteers who help on a sporadic, irregular basis do not receive any benefit. Instead, people benefit most when they volunteer for two or more organizations…and perform between 40 and 100 hours or more of service annually, says the 2007 government report. (The study did not find that giving more hours provided more benefit.)

Level of engagement. People who reap the benefits of volunteering are engaged with what they are doing—they aren’t bored or just whiling away the time. Lesson: Do something you enjoy.

Motivation. Attitude makes a difference. In a 2011 study published in Health Psychology, University of Michigan researchers found that people who volunteered regularly without concern for their own interests had a lower risk for death four years later. People who volunteered for self-centered reasons (as an escape from their own troubles or because of other people’s opinions) had the same mortality risk as nonvolunteers. If you are not sincere about your motivation to help others, you won’t reap the benefits.

Interested in volunteering? Several Web sites provide lists of opportunities by region and interest, including Volunteer Match (www.VolunteerMatch.com) and the US government’s United We Serve program (www.Serve.gov). To find out about opportunities if you don’t have access to a computer, inquire at schools, churches and hospitals in your area.