Finding Purpose Through Volunteering

May 7, 2018

By Jeanie Bryant, Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging, Institute for Public Health

As we celebrate Older Americans Month, I have been thinking about what it means to be an older person. In 2017, when I retired at the age of 65, I did not think of myself as an older American. For me, it’s not about age or labels, especially labels that promote negative stereotypes about older adults. I am retired, but not a retiree. I am older, but not a senior or elderly. For me it’s about making time to live my life with purpose. I make choices every day in how I live my life so that there is purpose, meaning, and engagement with family, friends, and my broader community.

Some years ago, The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren was published and remained on The New York Times bestseller list for over 90 weeks.  Did I read the book? No, but it was the title that intrigued me. In 2002, when the book was published, I was still 10 years plus away from my retirement date. As part of the Baby Boomer generation, I understood that a life with purpose would be important to maintain my health and wellbeing in the remaining decades of my life. When the time was right, I began to develop a five-year plan to retirement with this focus in mind.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” One of the ways I experience life with purpose and new experiences is through volunteering.

Volunteer experiences can enrich a single life or an entire community. For example, I help out at Gateway 180 — a shelter for women and children who are homeless — by serving breakfast on a Sunday morning each month, along with other volunteers from my church. My neighbor volunteers at The Blessed Basket Project. The sale of fair trade, hand woven baskets from this project supports families around the world to become entrepreneurs and build financial independence. I gain a lot personally from volunteering and hope that those I serve benefit as much as I do.

You too can engage at any age and take part in volunteer activities that will bring purpose and meaning to your life and to the lives of others. The Administration for Community Living (ACL) has developed a Give Back tip sheet with ideas and resources. You can also search sites like VolunteerMatch, which maintain a database of volunteer opportunities in your area.

Two organizations seeking volunteers in St. Louis that stood out to me are Mission: St. Louis and Kingdom House. They both offer a variety of programs to support individuals of all ages and families who are economically disadvantaged.

There are hundreds of opportunities to contribute on a regional or global level. Start searching for what is a good fit for you today.


This post is part of the “Older Adults & Aging” series of the Institute for Public Health’s blog. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive notifications about our latest blog posts.

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