Reaching out: How volunteering can boost your health and happiness

Volunteering and socialising not only help to keep age-related illnesses at bay, they also increase your levels of happiness, says Margaret Jennings.

Keeping up: Social interaction, such as meeting a friend for a walk, can help to decrease the risks ofdeveloping illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.
Keeping up: Social interaction, such as meeting a friend for a walk, can help to decrease the risks ofdeveloping illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.

Maintaining social contact for keeping age-related ill health at bay is as important to us as taking blood pressure tablets or cholesterol medication, says a leading expert in the field.

“We’ve known for some time how community involvement and social engagement — having friends — is so important for mental health, but it also influences physical health as we age,” says Professor Rose Anne Kenny, head of medical gerontology at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

“The flip side is that social isolation and loneliness, through inflammation in cells, can trigger physical illness like cancer, heart disease and stroke.”

As principal investigator of TILDA, which is the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, led by TCD, Rose Anne has specific insight into how we are ageing as a nation, since its voluntary participants represent one in 150 people in Ireland over the age of 50.

And she has embarked on what she calls a road-trip of some of our rural areas, in partnership with the GAA and Irish Life, sharing the findings of the research, in a series of public talks entitled How to Age Well: Evidence from TILDA.

Another strong message from the healthy ageing research is the importance of being a volunteer. “Part of that is social engagement because you usually do it as part of a group, but also we know that if you give, different parts of your brain light up, than if you take. There’s something about volunteering that is really good for our biological systems,” she tells Feelgood.

Reaching out: How volunteering can boost your health  and happiness

Having a purpose in life also affects how we age: “Again there is overlap with that — with volunteering and social engagement — but having a purpose and a positive attitude to ageing, adds an extra seven healthy years to your life — so it’s very important when you retire or whatever, to continue to have purpose. I can’t tell you the number of times in my capacity as a doctor, that I have seen patients who have said: ‘once I retired I became invisible’ or ‘once I retired I felt I had no purpose in society any longer’.”

It’s incumbent on individuals to ensure that they have purpose, but it’s also incumbent as a society, to ensure that we can facilitate every member of our community having purpose to the very end, she points out.

Rose Anne has already been bringing these messages to a public forum via the GAA in Longford and Limerick; in Donegal tonight, and in Mayo and Cork further down the line.

The GAA have such a great infrastructure of volunteers that to be able to capitalise on their wonderful network and their community health initiative and to share some really good evidence-based information with the people of Ireland as they are getting older is a wonderful opportunity

- she says.

Colin Regan, the GAA’s community and health manager at Croke Park says that it’s part of the GAA’s social initiative to encourage their clubs to become community clubs, rather than just sporting clubs, and this new venture was made possible through Irish Life’s social responsibility partnership with the organisation, as well as with TILDA.

“We don’t want the seminar to be seen as a GAA event — we want it to be seen as a community event that will benefit anybody who attends,” he says, adding that they had linked up with other organisations for this purpose, who were also serving that demographic.

We need look no further than the GAA of course, for examples of volunteering and social engagement. Colin says the bulk of officers — at club and county level, are in the 50-plus age bracket and 75% of the two management committees at national level are in that demographic.

The TILDA study shows that 56% of the 8,500 Irish people over 50 who participate in it volunteer on a regular basis.

While Rose Anne says there is lots of isolation and loneliness among that demographic in rural and urban areas in Ireland, for many others the situation is much more positive.

“Our data shows that quality of life continues to get better right up to the age of 80 and for some people 85. And if you speak to people as they get older they will tell you this. They’ll say: ‘Yea it’s great — I’m having such a good time!’,” she says. “After that, it gradually declines, but it doesn’t reach on average what it was at 50 until on average the population is at 85.

“There are lots of things — like grandchildren — adding a whole new richness to people’s lives, so really its capitalising on that and ensuring that’s the experience for everybody — because it’s clearly not.”

In the seminars, she is bringing evidence not only from TILDA but also from other longitudinal studies worldwide on how we can make ageing a healthy and a happy experience for all. But she also hopes that by raising awareness we can also start a discussion on a broader societal level about improving everyone’s lot.

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