Why volunteering as an older adult elevates both individuals and nonprofits

In one day, Chava David, 80, can experience a range of emotions as she volunteers in the Shaare Zedek Medical Center branch of Yad Sarah, Israel’s largest medical nonprofit. In one moment, she finds herself crying with the distressed mother of a wounded soldier who needs rehabilitation after fighting in Gaza. Only a few minutes later, she takes part in the joy of childbirth when a new father comes in to borrow a car seat and crib.

David thinks she is well-equipped for this emotional roller coaster because of the ups and downs in the trajectory of her own life. Born in Europe amid the storm of World War II, she experienced the hardship of hunger and chaos as a child refugee. Eventually immigrating to the State of Israel was the fulfillment of her life’s dream. She says that the wide breadth of her life experiences is what enables her to give her “whole heart” to each person who arrives at Yad Sarah, a volunteer-staffed organization that started out lending medical equipment and now offers more than 20 additional services as well.

David is not alone. Many of Yad Sarah’s volunteers are retired seniors, whose service through Yad Sarah benefits not only those they help but also themselves.

“Giving is what makes me feel good and keeps me on my feet,” says Reta Fivish, 85, a Holocaust survivor who has been volunteering at Yad Sarah for 18 years.

Statements like Fivish’s are reflected in research showing the benefits of volunteering at an older age. A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people over the age of 50 who volunteered more than 100 hours a year, or about two hours each week, had better physical and mental health outcomes than those who don’t regularly do volunteering activities. Data shows that those who volunteered had a lower risk of mortality, fewer limits on physical functioning and lower rates of depression and loneliness. In fact, the authors of the study suggest that physicians encourage their able and willing patients to volunteer in order to maintain their health as well as help society.

This is not the only research of its kind; similar results have been replicated in many studies. And organizations serving retired and older adults, including the American Association of Retired Persons, often cite such statistics when encouraging their members to volunteer.

With such clear benefits, it is important that all organizations, policymakers and communities encourage volunteering, and work to remove barriers to those who want to volunteer, such as being limited in their mobility or needing more flexible hours. This is especially critical as more people live longer and face the challenges that come with that, including increasing rates of loneliness — a phenomenon that the U.S. surgeon general recently identified as a public health epidemic that can take up to 15 years off a person’s life.

But volunteering isn’t just good for the volunteers. It is good for organizations and the people they serve as well. Volunteers also play an essential role in economies. In the United States, for instance, the unpaid labor conducted through formal volunteer hours in 2021 alone was worth $122.9 billion in value. Volunteers in nonprofits allow funding to go further, which in turn can enable organizations to provide more goods and services.

More nonprofits have come to rely on older volunteers as rates of volunteering decline among younger generations while demand for services continues to rise. That means that many organizations and their services depend on older volunteers, whose numbers are continuing to grow. Between 2018 and 2021 in the United States, the percentage of volunteer hours filled by individuals over the age of 65 increased from 18.5% to 28.6%. In the United Kingdom, people between the ages of 65 and 74 also have the highest rates of volunteering. Nonprofits and other organizations would be at a loss without the large numbers of senior citizens volunteering.

In many cases, the life experience, skills and perspectives of older individuals make them especially suitable volunteers. At Yad Sarah, for example, we serve many elderly people, and volunteers from among their peers can relate and empathize with their experiences. They are more likely to have experienced the loss of a loved one and endured illness or medical procedures, or have family or friends who have gone through those experiences. In addition, older volunteers’ professional and personal life experiences — as parents, grandparents and heads of households — often translate into valuable and useful skills in management, communications, financial planning, logistics and more. These skills help boost the quality and efficiency of nonprofit services and also be used to help train other volunteers.

With the multifaceted benefits of older volunteers clear, organizations need to make efforts to recruit and maintain senior citizens as volunteers. This includes a creative and flexible human resources approach that sees ability before inability, focusing on what people can do rather than what limits they may have. Older age should be viewed as an advantage and not a drawback; but, at the same time, organizations may need to make adjustments to accommodate the needs of older volunteers and accept that as people age their abilities may change.

As we mark Global Volunteer Month, organizations should not only be especially attentive toward their existing older volunteers but also work to foster a culture that opens the way for more older people to volunteer. Perhaps the biggest benefit of older volunteers is that they can set a precedent for compassion and social responsibility, encouraging others, including younger generations, to follow suit. As more people see the physical and mental health benefits older volunteers experience, and observe how organizations derive increasing value from them, they too may want to try, like Chava David, to volunteer their time and give their whole hearts to others. 

Philip Bendheim is director of the International Board of Overseers at Yad Sarah.