Pursuing lifetime dreams in retirement

No shortage of opportunities

According to Kelly Williams of the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, only 10 percent of its volunteers are older than 55 years of age. That's too bad because both kids and older people could benefit from the relationship.

"It's the kind of thing that a lot of people who have had life experiences want to give back and volunteer in a way that makes a difference for a child and community," says Williams, vice president of marketing and communications for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

The organization matches adults with children facing adversity for a mentoring relationship that can go on indefinitely -- but they would like at least a commitment of one year.

Animals need volunteers as well, and the benefits of working with animals are well-researched.

"There are hands-on opportunities, which are awesome. For instance, providing foster care: On the one hand you have the animal in your home, but it's not the same commitment as owning a pet," says Hilary Hager, director of the National Volunteer Center for the Humane Society of the United States.

Animal shelters can offer regular interactions with animals, or for a more exotic experience, volunteers can work "in a wildlife center interacting with wildlife most people don't get to interact with," says Hager.

Health benefits of interspecies interactions

A 2003 study found that simply petting a dog quietly for 30 minutes, even an unfamiliar dog, has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol while increasing levels of neurochemicals responsible for good feelings such as oxytocin, beta-endorphin and dopamine. Another study in 2006 measured the changes in autonomic nervous activity in 13 healthy seniors with an average age of 67 1/2. The study concluded that walking a dog may have more stress-fighting health benefits than walking without a dog.

Of course people who don't like children or animals won't derive many benefits from volunteering with them. If the first experience falls flat, try out other opportunities until one fits.

"What I've learned over the years is that all of us have different reactions to different situations. You and I can both meet someone, and you'll like them and I won't. In a personal-contact volunteering situation, if you don't like it, explore another experience," says Luks.

For instance, "If you've had a health problem in your family or among friends, look in that health area," he suggests.

There is no shortage of hands-on, personal-contact volunteering opportunities around the country. Based on scientific research, volunteering may be just what the doctor ordered for many in retirement.


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