In Canada, National Volunteer Month is observed in April, but this year instead of planning a bang-up appreciation party for volunteers, I got to attend one.
In truth, I could have gone to three events at the retirement home where I am the "visiting librarian" because volunteer coordinator Kim had planned a week's worth of activities: a Saturday morning breakfast, a Thursday games night, and a garden tea on Tuesday, the day I am always on the job. That clinched it --teatime would be my time.
Volunteers of all ages help out at the home so it made sense to me that working folk might choose the weekend breakfast, and younger volunteers would turn up in the evening to play A Minute to Win It. But on a weekday afternoon? I should not have been surprised to find that a heap of other retirees were there to have a drink, eat cookies, and plant a red maple (because "volunteers grow community".)
What I didn't expect were volunteer guests who were, in fact, residents of the retirement home. I sat with Gladys who runs the canteen every Tuesday afternoon, and Evelyn whom I last saw arranging numerous table decorations for Easter dinner. Mary and Joy were there, too. I first met them while they were serving eggnog and gingerbread in the foyer at Christmas time. Having seen the promotional posters for this seasonal gathering, I was sure that the staff had specifically enlisted these hosts just for the fun of proclaiming Celebrate Christmas with Mary and Joy! But on Valentine's Day, the two ladies were back with lemonade and sugar cookies, and I figured it out: Mary and Joy had a regular volunteer commitment just like I did. And who's to say you can't have a little Valentine's merriment (and joy)?
The thing is, the average age of the "garden party" guests was well over 85. So perhaps there is some truth to the news items I kept seeing all April: Volunteering Promotes Longevity. Researchers have noted that those who volunteer outlive those who don't, providing that the volunteer activity is genuinely satisfying and enjoyable. Jumping onto the Meals on Wheels bandwagon just to experience the promised "volunteer high" would not be the best choice, for example, if one gags at the prospect of driving through traffic with a back seat full of insul-packed dinners. (All the fun of pizza delivery, as far as I am concerned, but without the tips.) I recently extricated myself from a volunteer activity that was entirely conducted by email. The social rewards of volunteering are important to me, and I already have a close personal relationship with my computer. I did not need to enhance it.
I'd like to believe this longevity research, especially since I do find my visiting library volunteering socially and intellectually satisfying. But I would be interested to know how a commitment to volunteering compares to a commitment to work, or to friends and family. I am willing to bet that older non-volunteers who are still employed, or helping with grandkids or aged relatives, also experience feelings of happiness and fulfillment because they know that what they are doing is important, enjoyable, and appreciated. Perhaps the real secret to longevity is to feel useful, whether choosing audio-books for a woman recovering from surgery or looking after the grand children every Wednesday.
On my library rounds that week I broached this topic with "Libby", a library client who uses a walker and receives extended (nursing) care. "I still volunteer", she tells me. "I take the lady across the hall downstairs to Hymn Sing every Sunday. Otherwise she forgets to go" Libby pauses and then adds, "The hymns are terrible, just terrible-- so childish! But my neighbour loves to attend, and taking her down there doesn't do me any harm."
Libby is 94. She is optimistic, bright, a prodigious letter writer and a voracious reader. She particularly enjoys Anne Perry mysteries but keeps her reading in check with a timer which she usually sets for one hour. "Otherwise, she explains, "I would never get anything else done!"
She also recently passed a "fitness assessment" with flying colours. When I ask what was required, she explains and demonstrates: walking, getting out of a chair, picking something off the floor, putting on socks, and raising her arms over her head. (I can't help it. I test myself on these tasks in the stairwell as I leave Assisted Care.)
So there we have it: living proof. Volunteer. It can't do us any harm.