Volunteers: Artisans of health and well-being

The Bottom Line

  • Many retirees may be looking for ways to occupy their free time.
  • Studies suggest that volunteering can improve the physical and mental health of older volunteers.
  • In an environment of labour shortages and growing needs, organizations are relying more than ever on the help of volunteers to carry out their missions. Volunteering is a productive activity that contributes directly to the well-being of the community.

In Canada, the typical retirement age is 65. In 2021, it was estimated that more than 7 million Canadians were aged 65 and over, representing almost 20% of the population.(1) 

Many retirees are wondering how they will spend their free time and, more importantly, how to age while remaining active and healthy for as long as possible. According to Statistics Canada, one out of three older adults are volunteers.(2) However, many organizations are struggling to recruit volunteers, despite growing population needs.

Could volunteering your time, enthusiasm and knowledge improve your health and well-being?

What the research tells us

A recent high-quality systematic review examined the effects of volunteering on the physical and mental health of older adults who volunteer.(3) The review identified 24 studies involving more than 47,000 people.

The review authors were particularly interested in "formal" volunteering, which is voluntary participation in an unpaid activity to provide assistance to people who are not friends or family through an organization. That said, many people do "informal" volunteering, which means they do unpaid volunteer work that is not coordinated by an organization or institution (for example, running errands for a loved one, shoveling snow off the driveway or taking out the garbage for a neighbour with a disability).

Looking strictly at formal volunteering, the authors make the following observations:

- There is robust evidence that volunteering reduces mortality risk. 

- Few robust studies can help us draw conclusions for other physical health outcomes. That said, some studies suggest that volunteering may reduce disability, promote the maintenance of knowledge and skills, and slow the decline in activities of daily living. Older people who volunteer appear to be better able to carry out activities of daily living that require skills, judgment and independence, such as shopping, using public transportation, cooking, cleaning, using the telephone, taking medication, and managing their budget.

- In terms of mental health, studies suggest that volunteering can reduce depression by increasing psychological well-being, sense of accomplishment and belonging, quality of life and self-esteem, among other things. 

Would you like to support a cause that is important to you? In addition to making a real difference in the lives of others, it could have a direct positive impact on your own physical and mental health! What are you waiting for to offer your services to an organization in your community?

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Author Details


  1. Statistics Canada. Older adults and population aging statistics, 2022.
  2. Hahmann T. Volunteering counts: Formal and informal contributions of Canadians in 2018, Statistics Canada, 2021.
  3. Filges T, Siren A, Fridberg T, Nielsen BCV. Voluntary work for the physical and mental health of older volunteers: A systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2020;16(4).

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

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