Everyone knows that volunteering is good for the soul, but did you know that a recent study by several universities led by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health prove that it’s good for your brain, too?
In what is referred to as The Experience Corps Study, neuroscientists set out to see if volunteering could help stave off dementia, neurocognitive decline, and even Alzheimer Disease. What they found is that even in high risk individuals (those of lower socio-economic and educational backgrounds), neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change with learning, increased substantially over a six month period.
Experience Corps is a program that matches seniors with children in urban public schools between kindergarten and third grade, much like a mentoring program. As seniors reach the largest segment of our population, and as life expectancy continues to extend, the need to find “useful” activities for the elderly in order to maintain their cognitive functioning becomes paramount. By pairing seniors with children who need one on one attention in order to reach the appropriate achievement levels for their grade, both seniors and at-risk children benefit. Children in such mentoring programs soon catch up to their peers in reading level and math performance, while the seniors find purpose, companionship, and as the study shows, they benefit by increased neuroplasticity.
Experience Corps is not the only program that pairs seniors and at-risk children. Senior Corps’ Foster Grandparent Program also allows seniors the opportunity to mentor, help, and give emotional support to children who need special attention in order to reach their potential and be successful. Senior Corps also oversees two other programs; The Senior Companion Program and The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). The Companion program matches seniors with other seniors, offering care and friendship. RSVP is a service that helps seniors find volunteer services that are in line with their talents and education. RSVP volunteers do everything from building houses to giving vaccinations.
As Baby Boomers begin to retire, they are an undertapped resource for many volunteer activities. With the geographic spread of families, many children do not live near their natural grandparents, or may not be able to see them as often as they’d like because of divorce. Having a surrogate grandparent to read to and talk with creates a positive domino effect on children at high risk for negative social behaviors. By pairing a retiree with an at-risk child, not only do they both benefit, but society benefits as well. The longer a senior remains healthy and independent, the lower the societal cost of caring for them, and the greater their quality of life.
If you would like to volunteer, you can contact the Experience Corps national office at 1-(202)-434-6400 or visit their website at www.experiencecorps.org. Visit the Senior Corps website at www.getinvolved.gov.