EVERY Monday, in the village of Summerhill, Co Meath, a group of retired ladies gives knitting lessons to the children of Dangan National School. They've been doing this for a while now, and over the past few years the children and the ladies have been knitting teddies together.
"They're called Trauma Teddies because they used to be carried in the local North-Eastern Health Board ambulances for children going to hospital," says Anne Dempsey of Third Age, the organisation behind the initiative.
"At the end of June each year, the ambulance comes into the schoolyard and – with great excitement – the teddies are handed over and the children get to ride in the ambulance."
This year, the children and the volunteers are knitting baby blankets. It's a great project, and the ladies give their time because they want to help the children. But by helping the children they may actually be improving their own physical and mental health – because there's growing evidence that, especially for older adults, helping others is good for you.
At Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, they have found that volunteering for just four hours a week could reduce the risk of hypertension in older adults by 40pc. Hypertension – better known as high blood pressure – is a major cause of stroke and heart attacks.
At Johns Hopkins University, meanwhile, they have studied older women who volunteered at primary schools in the United States. They found that the women were more physically active and burned twice as many calories as similarly aged women who didn't volunteer.
"For our volunteers, volunteering with children may be as good as a gym membership," said Dr Erwin Tan "For our children, the wisdom that our older adults have is priceless."
At the University of California, Los Angeles, they have found that those who volunteer are also less likely to become frail. Frailty is a geriatric condition marked by weight loss, low energy and strength, and low physical activity.
It's also a condition that can be influenced by mental well-being, according to the UK's University of Exeter Medical School, who found that those who see themselves as old and frail come to feel old and frail.
An Arizona State University study, led by professor of psychology Morris Okun, looked at how voluntary work could help older adults with functional limitations – difficulties carrying out everyday tasks such as shopping and cooking.
"People who have the beginning of a set of functional limitations are the kinds of people who are experiencing some diminished sense of usefulness," Dr Okun said. "We know that a sense of usefulness is a predictor of mortality in older people.
"We are arguing that the experience of functional limitations may be accompanied by an erosion of their sense of 'how can I contribute'. If we give older people with functional limitations a way to restore their sense of usefulness, then we may be able to compensate for, or offset, the effect of functional limitations on mortality."
None of this is news to Third Age, the Irish organisation that promotes the value of older people and their continuing contribution to society.
Third Age began 25 years ago as an active retirement association in Summerhill, Co Meath.
"The founder was a very visionary woman called Mary Nally," says Third Age's Anne Dempsey. "And Mary could see that older people still had a lot to contribute."
The first programme to come out of this was the Senior Helpline, a listening service for older people. The helpline is open from 10am to 10pm every day of the year, and operates from 17 centres throughout Ireland. Last year, the helpline's trained volunteers – all of whom are older adults – dealt with 24,000 calls. Many of these calls were about health and financial issues, but loneliness is a recurring theme.
"We're not counsellors, but we listen and we chat," says Ita Moynihan, one of the helpline volunteers. "People seem to find that helpful. Some people have been on their own all day and just want to hear a friendly voice."
Some of the callers are struggling with very serious issues, such as abuse and feelings of suicide. But Ita and her colleagues are trained to deal with this. And despite the serious nature of some of the calls, Ita enjoys her work.
"You get to know a lot of people on the phone, even though you'll never meet them in person. It's good, knowing you're doing something for somebody."
Another national project is Failte Isteach, a community-based programme where older adults teach new migrants conversational English.
It was established in Summerhill in 2006 with only nine volunteers. Today it has 550 volunteers in 56 branches across Ireland, teaching English to 1,600 migrants from 64 countries.
Frank Gaynor is a volunteer at the Cabra branch. He says it's a diverse group at his branch: different nationalities, different ages and different backgrounds.
"They're all hoping that, with a little help, they can speak more English," he says.
But according to Anne at Third Age, it's not just about learning English.
"Wherever there's a Failte Isteach project, it helps to break down barriers in the community. It helps to foster integration."
Like Ita, Frank gets a lot from his volunteering experience.
"I really enjoy it. There's the satisfaction of knowing I'm making some use of the teaching experience and skills I have.
"And it puts a bit of shape to the week; I set aside every Thursday for Failte."
All of the Third Age projects, Failte Isteach, the Senior Helpline and the knitting project, meet the criteria set out by Professor Okun.
However, fully benefiting from volunteering may depend on why a person volunteers.
At the University of Michigan, using material gathered from a large pool of people over a 50-year period, they looked for evidence that the health effects of volunteering are influenced by a person's motives for volunteering.
The researchers found that those who volunteered for purely altruistic reasons were more likely to enjoy a longer life.
However, there's ample evidence to support the potential health benefits for those volunteers on the Third Age projects. And there's also evidence that the benefits of volunteering can be had at any age.
A recent study in Canada found that students who volunteered at an elementary school for one hour a week had lower BMIs and cholesterol levels after just 10 weeks.
The students also reported experiencing better mental health. It's proof, if it was needed, that we don't need to wait until retirement to benefit from helping others.
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