Volunteerism boosts health in aging adults

Daryl Mullee proudly displays a section of the blanket she has quilted during a recent quilt-a-thon. (Photo by Megan V. Winslow)
Daryl Mullee proudly displays a section of the blanket she has quilted.
Photo by Megan V. Winslow

It started as a project for a local Girl Scout troop in Alachua. The girls got excited about doing something for their counterparts in Sudan who couldn’t go to school when they reached puberty because they couldn’t afford feminine hygiene products.

Troop leader Radha Selvester took the project forward, but when political issues made a trip to Sudan impossible, a small group of girls went to Kenya instead. That kicked off a project that became the Alachua County chapter of Days for Girls (DfG), which Sylvester now chairs.

DfG chapters raise funds and awareness and are involved in sewing washable, reusable pads that go in menstrual kits that are distributed globally.

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Selvester, 62, has 500 to 1,000 volunteers for DfG, a place where older women comfortably volunteer, bringing their sewing skills to the table for a variety of projects that stretch beyond feminine hygiene.

Most recently volunteers took part in a quilt-a-thon making blankets for the homeless from donated materials. In all, five quilts were made that day, in addition to 12 others at another quilting event.

“As of today, we have about a dozen ready to go to GRACE homeless shelter,” Selvester said. “Plus, we gave five to Arbor House and one to a homeless person living in his car.”

DfG now has a quilting machine with a donated 9-foot frame, which Selvester said eliminates several steps and produces a more professional blanket.

“Typically, the folks who are retirement age are already knowing how to sew,” Selvester said. “Our core group tends to be mostly older ladies, people who are not busy with little babies at home.”

Days For Girls is just one of dozens of Gainesville area nonprofits and charitable organizations seeking volunteers, particularly those who are older. The range of possibilities is almost endless with volunteer opportunities through United Way, the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, Elder Options and many other organizations.

Experts agree that as people age, volunteering can be good for one’s physical and mental health, plus infuse a sense of purpose—something that is essential to living well.  

“I highly recommend volunteerism to add enrichment, a true sense of purpose beyond money and definitely to alleviate loneliness,” said retired social worker Elizabeth Byrd, 60, who volunteers at Days for Girls and Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary. “You will meet people from all walks of life and of all ages. I love it more than I did working for a paycheck.”

Louise Clark uses safety pins to securely sandwich batting between the top and bottom portions of a quilt.
Photo by Megan V. Winslow Louise Clark uses safety pins to securely sandwich batting between the top and bottom portions of a quilt.

Volunteering can also solidify friendships. Carol Israel, 63, who used to sew professionally, said her church, First Presbyterian in Gainesville, adopted DfG as a summer project five years ago.

“I’m doing it with a bunch of church friends,” she said. “We meet there on Tuesday nights and that’s really the connection.”

More than one out of every five older adults volunteers in some capacity, according to the most recent study available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Experts expect that number to increase as some 10,000 Baby Boomers per day reach age 65 throughout the 2020s. Studies show volunteer activities are good not only for those who receive the services, but especially for those do the volunteering.

“It is helpful both to oneself and one’s community,” said Dr. Joseph E. Thornton, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine. “The main thing is the social connection… The isolation we experienced during COVID shows what happens when we don’t have those connections.”

Volunteering takes many forms, Thornton said.

“Activities for a lot of folks who volunteer when older can range from being involved in 5k runs, or fundraising events, or being on the board of an NGO or nonprofit, or providing technical counseling,” he said. “It can provide material benefit to groups you are supporting.”

Nick Ross is certainly one of those who benefits the people with whom he comes in contact. Ross, 72, works with Elder Options as the SHINE Veteran Outreach Coordinator for a 16-county region in North Central Florida. Ross, himself a veteran, likes helping folks of Medicare age figure out which Medicare plan will work for them.

Elizabeth Byrd volunteers with Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary along with other organizations, including Days for Girls.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Byrd Elizabeth Byrd volunteers with Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary along with other organizations, including Days for Girls.

“I enjoy it,” Ross said. “And I think I am fulfilling a real need within the community at large… Because of my role in veteran outreach, I seem to be the go-to-guy for anything that has to do with veterans and Medicare.”

Ross, who has been working with SHINE for more than six years, couldn’t suppress his sense of humor when asked why he volunteers.

“It keeps me off the street,” he said. “It keeps my mind active because things are always changing, and you never get to the point where you have all the answers… and I feel like I’m doing something that’s worthwhile.”

Many see geriatric volunteerism as an antidote to sadness.

“I had patient after patient who came in because they were feeling ill,” said Dr. Linda P. Fried, a geriatrician and epidemiologist who is also dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “But what we found to be the root cause of their illness was they didn’t have a reason to get up in the morning and that appeared to be making them ill.”

That lack of purpose had real health implications.

“People with no reason to get up in the morning and no place to go and no structure don’t do well,” Fried said. “And there was no pill for depression that was going to solve this.”

Fried said older people need something to do that is meaningful to them. That’s what she tried to do as co-founder and co-designer of Experience Corps, a project that placed older volunteers in public elementary schools. AARP now manages that effort in 18 cities throughout the United States, although there are not yet any in Florida. 

“In general, what we have learned about volunteering is that people will volunteer if they are asked, but they may not think to do it themselves,” Fried said.

Event organizer Radha Selvester uses a ruler and a rotary cutter to remove excess fabric from a quilt square.
Photo by Megan V. Winslow Event organizer Radha Selvester uses a ruler and a rotary cutter to remove excess fabric from a quilt square.

She said the fit is important, recalling a former CEO who stopped volunteering when all he was asked to do was put stamps on envelopes. Contrast this with the volunteer who told Fried his volunteer experience “was the most important thing I have ever done in my life.”

Super volunteer Jon Reiskind, 82, works with the Florida Free Speech Forum, the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center, the Institute for Learning in Retirement, Gainesville Citizens for Active Transport, and the League of Women’s Voters, among others.

“These are the things I think are really important,” he said. “I’m concerned about people and living things that are not as well represented as they should be.”

You never age out of the opportunity to volunteer—as Gainesville resident Shirley Bloodworth shows. At 93 years old, she still actively gives of her time as co-chair of the Community Coalition for Older Adults at the Senior Recreational Center.

“Volunteerism is in my blood,” she said. “The best way to live your life is to be concerned, not just about yourself, but about others. I do believe in paying it forward. We have a big responsibility to future generations.”

Editor’s note: This is the third story in our Aging Matters series. It was independently reported by Ronnie Lovler and underwritten by Elder Options. Some reporting was made possible by Lovler’s acceptance as a fellow into the 2022 Age Boom Academy, a program of the Columbia Journalism School, the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

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