Volunteering can counter the effects of aging

Bellevue physical therapist Paul Gardner, PT, GCS, recently treated a 90-year-old patient who came to him because movement limitations were preventing her from doing one of the things which gives her the most joy and purpose in life: volunteering.

“She was having problems with walking and standing and sought out physical therapy with the key goal of being able to continue to volunteer,” he said of the woman, a volunteer at the Sarpy County Historical Museum. “She understood that volunteering was critical to her mental health, social health and physical health.”

Research shows that social isolation and loneliness are common in older adults, leading to adverse effects such as depression, reduced cognitive function, decreased activity and a number of physical issues. According to Gardner, Administrator of Community Rehab for Hillcrest Rehab Services, taking advantage of community volunteering opportunities can counter many of these effects of aging.

“The beauty of volunteering is that it can take many forms, regardless of physical limitations,” he said. “And, it tackles so many issues that may impact mind, body and soul – issues such as loneliness, increasing health issues and lack of activity.”

It’s a phenomenon, Gardner says, that he’s witnessed many times. And while volunteering can keep older citizens healthy mentally, physically and socially, his physical therapy team often complements these effects by working with seniors to keep their bodies volunteer ready.

Such is the story of a couple who, thanks to Hillcrest Rehab Services, are able to regularly volunteer at Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue.

“They share their love of and knowledge about nature,” Gardner said. “As part of this, they are hiking and moving around in difficult terrain. Addressing physical issues with hips, knees and feet through physical therapy can keep this hiking component comfortable and safe.”

The effort is certainly worth it, Gardner adds, as volunteering offers several important benefits such as:

Boosting self-esteem and lowering depression. Giving time to others can create a personal sense of accomplishment. When assisting others, the body releases dopamine in the brain, which has a positive effect on how people feel. It is documented that volunteers also experience lower levels of depression.

  • Expanding connections. Volunteers are surrounded by a community that’s attuned to helping – people willing to help out when times get tough. And, they realize that safety nets go both ways: helping when asked and asking for help.
  • Combating stress. According to a study by a Carnegie Mellon University doctoral student, volunteering reduces stress. In her study, 200 hours of volunteering per year correlated to lower blood pressure, and lower blood pressure correlated to better health outcomes.
  • Keeping the mind active. The same study speculated that mentally stimulating activities, like tutoring or helping with reading, contribute to maintaining memory and thinking skills that, in turn, reduces cognitive impairments.

For any questions you have about aging, contact Hillcrest Physical Therapy at (402) 682-4210.