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Surprising health benefits of volunteering

Aging Well | Wellness | October 26, 2018
volunteers at PeaceHealth Cottage Grove
Good-for-you reasons to do good for others

Did you know that volunteering can be good for your health?

You might be surprised by all the good-for-you reasons to do good for others.

Studies show that people who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability and lower rates of depression than those who don’t volunteer. Plus, people over 50 who volunteer regularly are less likely to develop high blood pressure than if they didn’t volunteer.

Like many nonprofits, PeaceHealth is in a unique position to see this principle in action as hundreds of people volunteer within our walls.

Almost 300 people volunteer at PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center in Longview, Washington. You’ll find them helping at the information desk or the cancer center, staffing the gift shop, lending a hand in the surgery waiting room or assisting patients, families and visitors in spiritual care.

Science and medicine are recognizing that regular social interaction is an important part of good health. One of the key benefits of volunteering has to do with social connectedness, which can help promote emotional wellbeing.

Meet new people, learn new skills

“Volunteering is a great way to meet all kinds of wonderful people,” says Cecily Meehan, a long-time volunteer at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham. “You will make new friends, learn new skills and build confidence.”

A lot of volunteers are retirees who have come from careers that kept them challenged throughout their working years. Volunteer opportunities give them a chance to put their past and present skills to work for others.

Different assignments can also give them chance to stay mentally sharp—and maybe try something they’ve never done before.volunteers at PeaceHealth St. Joseph

The same goes for volunteers who are just starting out in life—teens or college students. Not only does volunteering give them an insight into the working world, it helps in other, surprising ways.

Study shows surprising results

A Canadian study tracked teenage volunteers for ten weeks who spent one hour per week working with elementary students at an afterschool program. At the end of the study, the volunteer teens not only showed an increase in empathy and altruistic behavior, but showed improvements in cardiovascular and mental health. If you need a real-life example, read this story about teen volunteers who gave up their own lunch for a youngster at the hospital. Here’s another story about a college student volunteer who was in the right place at the right time.

More than 850 people volunteer for PeaceHealth facilities in Oregon communities, including Springfield, Eugene, Cottage Grove and Florence. There are about 90 different opportunities and roles for volunteers across these four medical centers, hospice, home health and the clinics.

Positive impacts of being a volunteer show up in studies across all age groups. Steven Rolnick, PhD, with adult behavioral health at PeaceHealth in Eugene, Oregon said, “I have come across impressive research studies supporting the psychological and physical benefits of volunteering.”

A Journal of Gerontology article cited a study that showed the physical and psychological wellbeing of older adults were positively affected by volunteering. It also found the more active the volunteer, the greater the benefits.

“Volunteers, while helping others, are notably benefitting themselves in many ways,” says Dr. Rolnick. “I often encourage my clients to consider volunteer activities to promote greater social engagement and sense of purpose, to help improve their mood.”

Physical benefits

Mental health is clearly improved with volunteering and it expands volunteers’ social circles, but physical health? That one’s in the “win column” too.

volunteer at gift shop in PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center in Springfield, OregonWhile some volunteer roles involve a lot of sitting, others give volunteers the opportunity to get plenty of physical exercise.

Volunteers who make deliveries or who escort patients or visitors on campus can log lots of steps. In PeaceHealth’s infusion center in Vancouver, Washington, some volunteers’ step counts typically tally about five miles during a four-hour shift, according to Rochelle White, supervisor of clinical nursing at the center.

Patients become volunteers

It’s not uncommon for volunteers to be former patients. In fact, for some programs, they are among the most valuable members of the health care team.

Former patients who have had knee and hip replacements can act as mentors and coaches in rehabilitation units.

In Bellingham, volunteers at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center contributed more than 60,000 hours last year in 60-plus clinical and support departments. Volunteers range in age from 17 to 93 and can be found all across the hospital and medical group transporting blood and lab specimens, delivering food trays to patient floors, and providing assistance in the Cancer Center.

Volunteers with the award-winning Mended Hearts Program at PeaceHealth in Bellingham are all past cardiac patients. “Their role is to provide peer-to-peer support, hope and inspiration to recovering heart patients,” says Marci Scott, director of volunteer services at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center. “They are a strong, cohesive group who also recently started a Young Mended Heart program for younger patients.”

Finding a niche

Some PeaceHealth volunteers find their own unique niche.

Patty Westfall lives in Craig, Alaska on Prince of Wales Island. She has turned her love of knitting into an incredible kindness project. She makes blankets for women whose pregnancies lasted 20 weeks or fewer. She recently sent a box of lovely white blankets to PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center that will be given to provide comfort for those families. Further proving there’s no age limit on volunteering, her young grandchildren, Eli and Emma, also created lovely watercolor cards to include with each of the blankets.Craig Alaska volunteer knitter with grandchildren

A volunteer at PeaceHealth in Sedro-Woolley, Washington creates hand-sewn fabric ice pouches for surgery patients.

In Vancouver, Washington, an average of 350 active, dedicated volunteers—adults and juniors—donate more than 65,000 hours per year to help patients and staff at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. They serve in nearly every area of the medical center and are often the first friendly face you see when you enter the hospital.

In some areas, pet therapy dogs and their handlers pay visits to waiting areas and lobbies and will make patient visits, on request.

Some facilities have volunteers who routinely share their musical talents on the harp, accordion, piano and other instruments with patients and staff.

Some services extend beyond the hospital walls as with this story about how volunteers at PeaceHealth in Friday Harbor, Washington, gave one family the memory of a lifetime.

Best benefit of all

And then there’s love. Volunteering offers that opportunity to do something for someone else just for love. Volunteers fill in the gaps and provide a warm human touch. They provide comfort and kindness and a hand to hold. 

PeaceHealth United General Medical Center in Sedro-Woolley, Washington has long benefited from the service of volunteers, including one man volunteered for 18 years in rehab therapy every Thursday. Greeting patients, providing escorts, cashiering in the gift shop and attending to spiritual needs are among the many roles. Volunteers touch the community with kindness and generosity.

volunteers at PeaceHealth in Friday Harbor finish a special paint job“Volunteers often say that they receive more than they give, and that their service gives new meaning to their lives,” says Diane Weir, volunteer services coordinator at PeaceHealth in Sedro-Woolley.

Several PeaceHealth facilities offer “cuddle” opportunities in their childbirth centers or neonatal intensive care units to help nurses and parents care for premature babies and those experiencing drug withdrawal.

Volunteers at PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center in Friday Harbor, Washington, can be found helping in innumerable ways, even mural painting. It's a testament to the wide range of skills and talents these individuals use to contribute to healing in our community.

For patients nearing the end of their journeys, volunteers with PeaceHealth hospice programs and No One Dies Alone offer compassion and grace.

As one PeaceHealth volunteer says, “My volunteer service keeps me young, inspires me to help others and brings such joy to my life. Volunteering has enabled me to provide compassionate assistance to the hospital patients and families, meet some terrific people and have fun to boot!”

Hetterly, J. , (2017) PsychBytes, June 12 online citation of the article by Hannah M. C. Schreier.  Effect of Volunteering on Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease in Adolescents A Randomized Controlled Trial Volunteering and Cardiovascular Disease Risks. JAMA Pediatrics, 2013; 1 DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.1100
Van Willigen, M. (2000) Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 55B, 5, 5308-5318
Musick, M., Herzog, A.R., &House, J.S. 91999). Volunteering and mortality among older adults: findings from a national sample. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 54B, S173-S180.
Oman, D.,  Thoresen, C.E., & McMahon, K. ( 1999). Volunteerism and mortality among the community-dwelling elderly. Journal of Health Psychology, 4(3), 301-316.

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