“Get your See’s candy! It’s the perfect last minute Christmas gift!” Akers calls out periodically.
Its 38 degrees outside. Four hours after their shift began, the two senior citizens still have hours to go and boxes left to sell before they pack up for the day. For every 10 customers who enter the store, maybe one stops to glance over their wares. Fewer make a purchase.
Yet the pair wear smiles a mile long. Volunteering is what keeps the two retired, unwed seniors engaged in their surrounding community.
“Even though we don’t get paid one dime, I’m always at it,” Vinella said of volunteering. “It gets me out of the house – I have to be doing something all the time.”
This sort of activism may just be the key to retaining mental wellness during the aging process. According to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, about 20 percent of Americans aged 65 and up struggle with clinical depression, in comparison to the 7 percent of adults over 18 who suffer according to the National Institute of Health.
Loss of loved ones, medical illness and biochemical changes in the brain are common triggers of depression among senior citizens, especially during the holiday season. Though easily treatable, the symptoms of depression in the elderly community are often overlooked as symptoms of an existing illness and underreported to friends, family and doctors. If left untreated, depression can increase the risk of contracting physical illness.
One of the top recommendations for staying mentally fit: community involvement.
Though she’s worked with the Lion’s Club off and on through the years, at 66, Akers is a new pledge. This year, the Sun Valley resident decided to become an official member – and has manned the Lion’s Club See’s Candy booth from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekend since Thanksgiving in the process.
“I know that they’re always asking for more help. I have the time, so why not do it?” Akens said. “Otherwise I just sit at home, so why not be out there doing something for my community?”
Vinella, a 77-year-old Sparks resident, has been with the Lions Club for the last 39 years, 34 of which have been with the Reno Arch branch of the organization. In his time as a volunteer, Vinella has served as a governor, council chairman, international director and currently holds the position of membership chairman. Though he’s always been heavily involved, it was three years ago with the passing of his late wife that the organization took on the significance it holds today.
“(Volunteering) became a bigger part of my life than it was before … more of a focal point,” Vinella said. “I’m not a person to sit around and feel sorry for myself. There’s other people that have it worse than I do.”
Local nonprofit director Mary Brock has seen the positive effect that volunteering has on Sparks’ elderly first hand.
Brock works with both the Senior Companion Program and Foster Grandparents Association of Northern Nevada, both programs geared toward pairing senior volunteers with community members – the former with elderly clients in need of independent living assistance, and the latter with at risk and academically struggling youth. The program is mutually beneficial, she explains: not only are volunteers able to give back to their community, they’re also enabled to “give their day a purpose” by committing time to others.
It’s inspiring, she says, to see lives changed on both sides of the equation.
“For a lot of our folks, the primary focus is that they have something to look forward to each day,” Brock said. “The senior clients look so forward to having that special attention from the volunteer every week, and the volunteer reaps the same benefits.”
Though neither Akers nor Vinella fight symptoms of depression themselves, they encourage their peers who do to consider volunteering as a potential solution.
“(Volunteer work) is the best thing they can do to fill their idle time … those who are involved with things seem to live longer, have better lives, and feel better about themselves because they’re doing things for others,” Vinella said.
Despite volunteering for long hours, in cold temperatures and with no compensation, Vinella enjoys every minute.
“That’s what keeps me looking 59,” he joked.