In early January, before COVID-19 was as familiar as the furniture, I went to my annual doctor visit. My doctor looked at my test results and shook his head. Practically everything was perfect. My cholesterol was down. That was my weight. My blood pressure was that of a swimmer. A spate of blood tests showed no red flags.
“What are you doing differently?” he asked, almost amazed.
After all, I’m a 67-year-old bald man who has spent much of my life as a desk-bound journalist dealing with nasty ailments like hernias (in my 30s), kidney stones (40s), and shingles (50s).
I thought about what had changed since my last physical procedure. Sure, I exercise more than 90 minutes a day, but I’ve been doing that for five years. And yes, I watch what I eat, but this is not new. Like most families with college-age children, my family is emotionally and financially troubled – and there has been no let up.
Only one thing in my life had registered a real change. “I’m volunteering more,” I told him.
I had spent less time in my basement office and more time doing something good with like-minded people. Was this the magical elixir that seemed to steadily improve my health?
All signs pointed to “yes”. And I felt great doing it.
Just when I realized how important volunteering is for my health and well-being, the novel coronavirus appeared. As the falls climbed, the company closed. One by one, my beloved Virginia volunteer appearances disappeared. No more assembling at Riverbend Park in Great Falls so people can decide which trails to take. Or Wednesday lunch for the homeless at a community home in Falls Church. Or on Fridays at the Arlington Food Assistance Center, which I gave up out of caution. My humble asthma is exactly the kind of underlying disease that seems to make COVID-19 all the more brutal.
I used to feel like a sourpuss if I just missed a day of volunteering. After almost eight months without it, I’m downright grumpy.
Science helps explain why.
“The health benefits for older volunteers are overwhelming,” said Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging and distinguished visiting scholar at USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, whose lectures, books and podcasts on aging are turning heads .
When older people are doing physical activity, he said, “In addition to drawing blood and all the other things the doctor does when he pushes and pokes and pokes, the doctor should say to you, ‘Tell me about your volunteering. ‘”
A 2016 study in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Behavioral Medicine, which pooled data from 10 studies, found that people with a higher sense of life – such as those obtained through volunteering – were less likely to die in the short term. Another study published in Daedalus, an academic journal by MIT Press for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, concluded that older volunteers were at lower risk for high blood pressure, delayed physical disability, improved cognition, and lower mortality .
“People who are happy and engaged show better physiological function,” said Dr. Alan Rozanski, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital, a senior author on the study of psychosomatic medicine. People who engage in social activities like volunteering often had better blood pressure results and better heart rates.
This makes sense, of course, because volunteers are usually more active than someone who is at home on the couch and streaming “Gilligan’s Island”, for example.
Volunteers share a dirty little secret. We can start by helping others, but we stick to it for our own good, emotionally and physically.
In the homeless shelter, I was able to reach my target heart rate and pack 50 bag lunches in one hour to the beat of the Motown music. And in the grocery bank, I felt the physical and emotional uplift in human contact as I handed out hundreds of liters of milk and dozen of egg cartons during my three-hour shift. When I volunteer, I dare to say that I feel more like 37 than 67.
None of this surprises Rozanski, who has looked at 10 studies with more than 130,000 participants in the last 15 years. All, he said, showed that participating in purposeful activities – like volunteering – reduced the risk of cardiovascular events and often resulted in longer lives for the elderly.
Dr. David DeHart knows something about it. He is a family medicine doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. He believes he has worked with thousands of patients, including many older ones, over the course of his career. Instead of just writing prescriptions, he recommends volunteering his elderly patients primarily as a stress reliever.
“Compassionate actions that relieve others’ pain can help alleviate your own pain and discomfort,” he said.
At 50, he is listening to his own advice. DeHart volunteers with international medical teams in Vietnam, typically two trips a year. Often he also brings his wife and children with him to help. “When I come back I’ll feel charged and ready to get back to work here,” he said. “The energy it gives me reminds me why I wanted to be a doctor in the first place.”
I see my personal volunteering rewards as cosmic electricity – with no “off” button. The good feeling stays with me all week – if not the whole month.
When is it safe to resume volunteering?
I think about my options. The park has some outdoor opportunities that are all about cleanup, but I lack the interaction that lifts me up. I’m tempted to go back to the grocery bank because even Charles Dinkens, an 85-year-old who has volunteered next to me for years, has returned after eight months. “What else should I do?” he posed. The homeless shelter does not yet allow volunteers. Instead, people are asked to pack lunch at home and drop it off. Oh, they are also looking for people to “call” virtual bingo games for residents.
Virtual bingo just doesn’t float on my boat.
To be honest, there is no single way to safely volunteer during the pandemic, said Dr. Kristin Englund, a doctor and infectious disease expert at Cleveland Clinic. She suggests that volunteers – especially those over 65 – stick to outdoor options. It’s better to be in a sheltered space where the public doesn’t move, she said, because “every time you interact with a person, your risk of developing the disease increases.”
Englund said she would consider taking dogs outside for a local animal shelter as a safe option with some camaraderie. “While we know humans can give COVID to animals,” she said, “they are unlikely to be able to give it back to you.”
In the meantime, my next annual physical appointment is in January. I have to wonder if my labs will be as spotless as the last round. I have my doubts. Unless, of course, by then I have resumed some kind of personal volunteer work.
Last year, an elderly woman who lived in the homeless shelter pulled me aside to thank me after I served her lunch of tomato soup and a turkey sandwich. She put down her tray, took my hand, looked into my eyes and asked, “Why are you doing this?”
She probably expected me to say I do it to help others because I care about the less fortunate than I do. But that didn’t come out.
“I’ll do it for myself,” I said. “Being here makes me healthy.”