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Lending a hand: Volunteering improves seniors’ health

Editor’s note: This column is part three of a five-part series about issues facing senior citizens.

By Kit Paternoster

Rosalind was introduced in Part I of this article, “The cost of loneliness,” which was published Sept. 19, and Part II, “Preventing isolation and loneliness in seniors,” published Oct. 3.

This story has discussed the growing worldwide problem of loneliness and isolation among elderly populations. Right here in Hancock County, there are numerous examples living among us. We have introduced Rosalind and described her situation. We have discussed causes, effects and some ways to mitigate the loneliness and isolation of our elders. Obstacles do exist in efforts to help. Engaging some seniors can be difficult because some attempts to reach out may feel like an invasion of privacy.

There are numerous ideas for program development, which include: supporting all transportation initiatives; increasing the service delivery capacity of existing community agencies and increasing community awareness of services for seniors, such as: low-cost leisure and educational activities, organized meals, extra support and follow-up for newly discharged elders from the hospital and expanded one-to-one visitation.

An area where seniors can become engaged with others, provide much needed assistance to others and mediate their own isolation and loneliness is through the efforts of volunteering. Research suggests a link between volunteering on the part of older adults and a greater emphasis on healthcare. Volunteers are more likely to engage in preventive healthcare (flu shots, cholesterol checks etc.) and spend fewer nights in the hospital. Volunteering also serves the function of increasing a sense of purpose in life and creating an environment for expanded social connections. As the 2011 U.S. Census Bureau noted, 43 percent of seniors 65 and older are single individuals who are facing longer and an increasingly active retirement. This then creates a ready supply of potential volunteers.

Volunteers as an economically invisible sector play key roles in delivering care to their communities. Seniors who remain active receive health boosts of their own. Motivation for seniors to volunteer include: altruism, filling leisure time, enhancing social contacts, need for affiliation, sense of duty, desire to feel competent and contributing to better health and higher functioning of their communities.

Let us re-visit Rosalind and see how she is doing. Senior Services has been able to provide transportation during the week to take her to appointments, shopping and visiting friends. Having a weekly visiting volunteer has served as companionship, where she feels comfortable talking about most any topic. Though Rosalind still likes to take care of cleaning her home, she knows that if she should need assistance at some point, Senior Services can assign her a homemaker. Senior Services suggested she might wish to go to the Senior Center on occasion to participate in card games, meeting new people and sharing mealtime. With encouragement, Rosalind has sought assistance from fellow members of her church to give her rides to and from services. She is happy to re-engage with her church community.

In addition to the above, Rosalind is considering attending the local grief support group that meets weekly. Since she has always enjoyed knitting and crocheting, she attends a twice monthly group where seniors congregate to work on their own projects. When Rosalind learned of intergenerational gatherings with seniors and local youth, she jumped at the opportunity to participate. She also is considering attending the monthly Ladies Day Out luncheons and has expressed interest in a soon-to-be formed Health and Wellness Support Group for mature women. Though Rosalind may not be a social butterfly, she is busy now every week. She has reconnected with old friends and has been making new ones. Her former reclusiveness has evolved into adventurousness. She is much happier and is proving to be a good friend to others who value her company.

Hancock County is one of the five fastest-growing counties in Indiana. In July of 2015, the population was 72,500. Indiana Business Review has placed the population growth between 2010 and 2050 at 15 percent. By 2030, the aging population will increase from 13 to 20 percent. The overall increase of Hoosiers 65+ will grow by 70 percent. At present in Hancock County, there are new and expanding living options for seniors.

The demand is high for senior housing and will surely grow in the near term. In concert with housing needs, additional services for the aging population will be in demand.

It is only prudent to pursue now what we know will need to be in place for the future.

Kit Paternoster is the outreach coordinator for Hancock County Senior Services. Questions or comments may be addressed to

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