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Volunteering has knock-on effects for health and wellbeing

The benefits from volunteering are mutual, with new research highlighting that volunteering in middle age and senior years is linked to enhanced mental health, writes Sharyn Broer.

We’ve known for a very long time just how valuable volunteering is and I’m delighted to see this anecdotal feedback being mirrored in the findings of a recently published study.

Sharyn Broer, CEO of Meals on Wheels SA

Sharyn Broer, CEO of Meals on Wheels SA

The longitudinal research published by the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) found there was a positive association between volunteering and good mental health and emotional wellbeing, particularly for volunteers over the age of 40.

The BMJ study examined data relating to questions asked annually of 5,000 British households between 1991 and 2008, and the answers people gave about volunteering, happiness and their general wellbeing.

What was interesting is that while everyone who volunteered scored better on a mental wellbeing scale, it was from the age of 40 that mental health and wellbeing improved significantly and then went on to peak at the age of 76 to 80.

We often think of people turning to volunteering as they transition between employment and retirement – normally in their late fifties and sixties – but I was pleased to see that the academic research highlighted the benefits for people in a younger age bracket.

Recently published research that was conducted on behalf of our national organisation, the Australian Meals on Wheels Association (AMOWA), also found that volunteering contributed significantly to a person’s health and wellbeing.

More than 600 people contributed to that study and reported that volunteering gave them ‘a sense of belonging’, ‘a sense of purpose’ and that it fostered friendships.

They were also very keen to tell us how they see volunteering with Meals on Wheels as a ‘two way street’ with the overwhelming majority saying they would remember the many positive experiences of their volunteering for a very long time.

Some of the less obvious benefits they talked about were around picking up new skills, either in the kitchen, in their work in the administration of the organisation or in dealing with customer engagement.

As one of our volunteers said: “Volunteer work opened the door to paid work. I learned new skills, upgraded existing ones and learnt to socialise in an office again … my confidence returned.”

They also understood and really appreciated the difference that they make in allowing someone to remain as independent as they can be in their own homes, for as long as they can be.

Our volunteers also reported being very proud of the link they are able to provide in keeping a friendly eye on a client’s welfare and letting family or caregivers know if a little more support might be required.

Quite apart from the altruistic benefits, our volunteers say being part of the Meals on Wheels team is genuinely engaging and they never really know what life story is behind the next door.

“I have met many interesting people who keep me motivated and remind me that age is not a barrier to enjoying life and that much can still be achieved,” said one volunteer.

Sharyn Broer is the CEO of Meals on Wheels SA.

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