Retirement is definitely being redefined – and it’s about time. Not only is it about time we rethink what this new longevity can provide, but it’s also about rethinking how we want to best use the time this new longevity now provides.
There are numerous benefits to staying engaged in life – particularly with age. And while there are likely more options than most of us could ever begin to experience in our lifetime, it’s clear that whichever route we take – be it volunteering, continuing to work, a combination of the two, or something else entirely, what matters most is doing things that add life to our years versus just years to our life.
Yet as a specialist in aging and retirement, it is clearly evident that while we’ve done a great job enabling people to live long lives, we’ve definitely lacked in helping people transition into the second half of life. Many people struggle with the thought of re-identifying and even reinventing themselves and their lives to truly enjoy and embrace all this new longevity has to offer.
For many, one of the biggest challenges of living longer is they have no idea what to do with this gift of additional time on the planet. There’s a complete disconnect as to how or where to start this process. And most sad of all is many end up getting to a place where they’re just existing vs actually living — which certainly can take a negative toll on one’s physical health.
One of the first gerontological lessons I learned from my early work in the field of aging was the value of service – giving to others and helping others was definitely one of the traits I recognized in those who were aging well vs those who weren’t. While there were a variety of ways people achieved this, along with a very varied group of people who did so — being of various economic and physical abilities, the one constant was this understanding that we’re here to serve. Additionally, I also remember how valuable this concept was for those suffering loss in their life — be it physical or emotional, focussing their efforts on someone or something else filled that painful void.
So as we journey through life’s unchartered territory of transitions and reinvention that comes with longevity, it’s essential to recognize the abundance of research on the health benefits of staying engaged – be it working or volunteering — having a sense of purpose is a key aspect to maintaining both mental and physical health later in life.
On the work front, studies show that retirees who continue to work in some capacity, even part-time, are less likely to experience physical decline and diseases. Interestingly enough, compared to those who quit working, the people who described themselves as officially retired but who continued to work part time or in temporary jobs were less likely to be diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, stroke, and arthritis. They were also less likely to show signs of functional decline or inability to perform the activities of daily living.
Volunteering has a similar effect. Studies over the years show that no mater where they begin healthwise, volunteers reap physical and emotional benefits — including less stress and depression, and longer lives. Additionally, volunteering is particularly beneficial to adults age 65+ and those who serve 100+ hours/year as 68% report feeling better physically since starting volunteering and are also more likely to report a greater sense of well-being.
It has long been known and well documented that the reason volunteering makes us healthier is rooted in biology: it elevates levels of the body’s natural opiates, like endorphins, or “happy hormones,” and dopamine. Volunteering also enhances social networks and provides a way for people to stay active in the community, as well as providing a sense of belonging.
So if you’re stuck in a rut and trying to find the meaning in your life, maybe you need to give a little and you’ll likely get a lot back. Remember … those who give, live!