Benita Galandy remembers her first year volunteering at the Elders Centre in Grande Prairie, a shelter for at-risk Métis elders who have nowhere else to live.
“I volunteered to help manage it, because they had no money,” Galandy said. Fifteen years on as manager, Galandy says it's the unpaid service to residents that stands out to her: making meals, giving rides to medical appointments and helping with facility maintenance. And it's those extras that won the elder a 2021 Seniors Service Award from the Alberta government.
Staff reductions have been a byproduct of the pandemic for the room-and-board shelter serving those over age 55. When COVID-19 hit, Galandy says she moved in, taught one woman to cook (now the shelter's cook) and hired others to do the cleaning.
Helping others is something Galandy does naturally, coming from a small Metis community where “everybody helps raise each other's kids."
“I believe in giving back to the community, probably because it’s the way I grew up. I was taught to always help.”
As the new year opens, people may put volunteering on their list of resolutions. Reasons can range from being a help to your community to getting experience in something you’re interested in. But there’s also evidence that points to volunteering as a path to healthy aging and well-being.
A 2020 study published in the Journal of Happiness shows volunteering offers a boost in mental health, with some 70,000 subjects reporting being more satisfied with their lives and overall health when they volunteered. Even after taking into account whether the volunteer already had a high level of well-being, results confirmed people who volunteer become happier over time.
A University of Pittsburgh study, published in the Gerontologist, likewise showed older adults reporting significant improvements in mental health and social activity, with volunteers lower in socioeconomic status reporting more emotional benefits than those of higher status.
For Dirk Bannister, a Calgary area Kiwanis member for 50 years and recipient of a 2021 Seniors Service Award, volunteering is a way to give back and to connect with others.
“There’s so much need in the community; so many not-for-profits. I say, you can’t do it all, but you can do a little,” said Bannister, adding volunteering gives back the social connections the pandemic has taken away. "We were built to build together."
“When we paint a house or put in a fence, there is a camaraderie. When Kiwanis helped give sanitizers to the homeless--the fun we had doing that.”
Bannister has dedicated most of his life to helping, including at women’s shelters, hospitals, Kamp Kiwanis and the Calgary Drop-in Centre. He says as much as volunteering gives to others, it gives back to the volunteer.
“If you let the overwhelmingness of what you see get to you, you won’t feel good," he said. "You have to feel good with what you do."
Research confirms the simple act of helping someone brings on greater happiness than giving to oneself. Benefits of volunteering include imparting a sense of purpose, meaning and control, especially for people with vulnerabilities such as dementia. And giving away time indicates a sense of abundance for the volunteer, which means feeling less rushed.
Bannister sees a new generation of volunteers in his younger counterparts, and a growing number of volunteer centres offering a remodelled blueprint for giving back.
“Today’s volunteers don’t necessarily want to belong to a service club,” he said. “They want to have the freedom to volunteer where they feel the most affinity."
Goodtimes.ca reports Canadians are generous with their time: more than four in 10 Canadians 15 or older volunteer, and those 55 or older are the most active volunteers. In the last decade, Statistics Canada showed:
• 41% of Canadians aged 55 to 64 volunteered an average of 203 hours a year
• 38% of those 65 to 74 volunteered an average of 231 hours a year.