Sit down at a table with Mary Rimpson and Nate Whitelow and you’ll be lucky to get a word in edgewise.

The Benton Harbor residents are full of energy, and are passionate about many things – their family, their community, their faith and especially children.

Rimpson, 77, and Whitelow, 66, volunteer at Benton Harbor’s International Academy at Hull through the Region IV Area Agency on Aging’s Foster Grandparent Program.

“I was sitting around the house,” Rimpson said of her post-retirement life many years ago, “and I had an aunt … and she told me about the program. And I started. I came over here, I took the class. I’ve been working with the schools for 14 years.”

She said if she had continued sitting at home every day, she would have gotten stiff and probably put on weight. But volunteering, she said, has had more than just physical benefits.

“Volunteering keeps my mind sharp,” she said. “I don’t have to have somebody go to the store with me. As somebody asked me, ‘Who does your business?’ I do my own business. I am not crazy yet. I do my own stuff.”

Whitelow – Grandpa Nate as he’s known to the kids – has been volunteering with AAA for six years. The former Benton Harbor Area Schools paraprofessional said the Foster Grandparent Program has been very beneficial for him.

“Area Agency (on Aging) has really given me an opportunity to do my physical therapy for myself,” said Whitelow, who had surgery on his hip about three years ago. “If I wasn’t here, all the things I like to do, I think I wouldn’t be able to do them.”

Both realize the positive effects volunteering has had on their lives, but according to a new study, their many hours of annual service might be having a greater effect on their health than they even realize.

Studying a years-long study

Christine Proulx, an associate professor of human development and family science at the University of Missouri, said many studies have been conducted that link formal volunteering to physical health benefits – like reduced mortality and increased physical functioning. But the correlation to cognitive functioning was another story.

“I was just curious,” she said when talking about her recently published study. “People have looked at volunteering in later life and how it effects physical health. But the literature on cognitive health was much smaller.”

She and two associates dissected the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study – a longitudinal project sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration that has collected data every two years since the 1990s. Their results were published in The Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences.

Cognitive functioning was measured in those older than 50 with three tests – an immediate and a delayed recalling of 10 words, a serial sevens subtraction test of working memory, and counting backward to assess attention and processing speed.

Proulx’s team examined nine waves of that data from 11,100 participants who were 51 and older.

What they found was that formal volunteering was associated with “higher levels of cognitive functioning over time, especially with aspects of cognitive functioning related to working memory and processing.”

The benefits were greater for women than men, and were greater for those with below average levels of education.

Formal volunteering does not stop cognitive decline, which Proulx said typically starts when people are in their 40s, but it makes the decline less steep.

“The thing that we don’t know,” she said, “is what it is about volunteering that’s beneficial.”

Proulx suggests volunteering is beneficial because it stimulates the brain. When volunteering a person must follow directions, solve problems and be active, all of which engage working memory and processing.

As a way to stratify participants of the Health and Retirement Study, Proulx’s team broke them down into those who volunteered 1-99 hours per year, 100-199 hours and 200-plus hours.

Proulx’s study found the benefits of formal volunteering plateaued at 200 hours per year.

“Let’s say the average year, you are available for 50 weeks,” Proulx said. “Two hundred hours is a few hours a week. It’s possible that more than that doesn’t add anything to the protective effects of volunteering. Doing more might just be too much, and maybe it’s competing with other things that are good for your health, like reading or spending time with friends.”

The study also compared those who volunteered formally – people like Whitelow and Rimpson who work through the AAA – and those who volunteered informally – like those who lend a hand to a friend, neighbor or family member in need.

Formal volunteering, of any length, was associated with higher levels of cognitive functioning than informal volunteering.

Volunteering in Southwest Michigan

This year, 89 senior citizens – average age 72 – have volunteered more than 89,000 hours helping approximately 460 kids across Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties through AAA’s Foster Grandparent Program, according to program coordinator Rose Egelhaaf.

But the program is far from the only opportunity for those looking to lend a hand.

Volunteer Southwest Michigan has a wide swath of volunteer opportunities in the tri-county area.

Last year, the nonprofit accounted for nearly 44,000 service hours, which have a monetary value of more than $1 million, according to its 2016 annual report.

That only counts the people who signed up for opportunities through its website, www.volunteerswmi.org, said Sarah Kolbeck, director of client services and data processing. It doesn’t count people who see an opportunity on the website or in the newspaper and call the nonprofit directly.

“Our main goal is to connect individuals in the community to volunteer opportunities,” she said. “How we do that is we have partner nonprofits who can post their volunteer opportunities on our website for free.”

More than 250 nonprofits, some more active than others, post opportunities for a wide range of ages.

“Individuals who are 60-plus have a lot of skills and things they can offer,” Kolbeck said. “Some people, they are looking at retirement, and they think, ‘What am I going to fill my time with?’ They worked so hard their whole life, and it’s just a matter of not just keeping busy, but getting out of the house. It keeps them engaged with other people.

“I think, for them, it’s that social engagement that really brings happiness,” she said. “And obviously that sparks neurons and the mental capacity to think outside the box and keep going and stay engaged.”