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by Nissa Simon
Updated September 28, 2022
Although he was born in Wisconsin and went to college in Minnesota, Nick Krembs, 76, felt that the flat landscape he had known all his life seemed alien to him. He decided he wanted to go east where there were woods and hills and mountains, so in 1971 he and his girlfriend (soon to be his wife) headed first to New Hampshire and then to Vermont to find the old forests. Once settled in Norwich, Vermont, he became a carpenter like his uncle and grandfather. In his spare time, Krembs volunteered to help maintain trails in an area of Vermont and New Hampshire called the Upper Valley, which straddles the Connecticut River.
After retiring in 2013, “my first love and passion became trail work,” Krembs says. Trail maintenance, as it’s officially called, involves making sure the blazes that mark the trail are kept in good repair so people can find their way; cleaning out leaf-clogged ditches meant to carry water off the trail; building footbridges and steps that fit in with the landscape; clearing brush; and removing fallen trees. Krembs notes that trail work combines two loves for him, being useful and being out in a natural environment. “When I’m in the woods, I feel like a creature that’s finally found its way home,” he says. “I like the peace and the serenity, observing birds and wildlife and plants. Trails help lead other people to a place I cherish, and the concept of sharing this space with others is rewarding.” A number of studies have found that the sounds and sights of the natural environment may improve memory and improve mood in many people.
Gardening, delivering meals
In addition to trail work, Krembs gardens with a nonprofit that grows food to stock food pantries, delivers meals for Meals on Wheels, and is part of a group that helps bring asylum seekers to the Upper Valley. Krembs doesn’t pursue these activities for his own benefit, but his work in the community may turn out to be good for his health. Research has found that leading a meaningful life is linked to longevity and that volunteers are happier, more active and more optimistic than non-volunteers. Volunteering may also reduce the risk of dementia, a general term for an impaired ability to remember, think or make decisions that interferes with everyday activities.
A rake and a hoe
Krembs’ volunteering includes working in a Willing Hands garden a few hours a week. Willing Hands, a nonprofit organization that serves the Upper Valley, delivers donated fresh food to shelters, senior housing and food shelves, a commonly used term for food pantries. “They’ve also got a big two-acre garden that they till, plant and harvest,” he says. “I do a lot of gardening when I’m there. The demand for food shelves is great, and Willing Hands has expanded its growing area during the pandemic.”
Krembs also spends one day a week delivering food for Meals on Wheels. “It takes just 3½ hours and I get to meet some people I wouldn’t know ordinarily,” he says. It’s a pleasure to bring a smile to their doorsteps, he declares. “When my grandkids come to visit, they’re happy to go with me on my route. People really like to see them. It’s a big part of their day.”
Krembs’ sister, a retired nurse, has been volunteering in El Paso, Texas, with a nonprofit group that provides shelter, clothing and food to migrants from Mexico and Central America. Krembs stayed with her on a few visits and helped at the sanctuary. When he returned to Norwich, Krembs joined with others to form SHARe (Supporting Helping Asylees and Refugees — the “e” is small and silent), a nonprofit that supports individuals and families from any country to gain asylum and backs their efforts to establish lives here. “We’re now preparing to bring a large extended Afghan family to our community,” he says. Many people have joined in the effort to prepare for the refugees’ arrival, and once they receive their visas, “we’ll be ready to welcome them.”
“I’ve been eating more spicy foods, more chiles, more Spanish food,” Krembs says. “I like the taste, probably because that’s what I ate in the Southwest when I visited my sister.” In winter he does a lot of one-pot cooking. Since he’s been working at Willing Hands, he eats more kale — the spices make it more palatable, he explains with a laugh.
Krembs notes that he was brought up to be useful, an example his parents set for him. They had jobs, but they also helped other people and did volunteer work, so working for the betterment of something was a way of life in his family. With the passing years, Krembs feels less self-centered than he did when he was younger. “I’ve reached a stage of life where I realize that other people are important to my well-being,” he says. “I now have better relationships with friends, family, siblings, children and grandchildren than before. I’ve become a happier person since I retired. I feel blessed and privileged.”
• “A synthesis of health benefits of natural sounds and their distribution in national parks,” PNAS, March 2021. Researchers reviewed 18 publications that looked at the benefits of natural sounds such as bird calls, wind, and rain on health. The authors found evidence that exposure to these sounds, and particularly water sounds, reduces stress and annoyance, improves mood, and boosts mental performance. Read the full study.
• “Leading a meaningful life at older ages and its relationship with social engagement, prosperity, health, biology, and time use.” PNAS, January 2019. Researchers looked at data from 7,304 people, ages 50 to 90. Participants who believed they were living a worthwhile and meaningful life had better social relationships, were less lonely, and had better mental and physical health than those who didn’t feel this way, regardless of their age and income level. Read the full study.
• “A Meaningful Life is a Healthy Life: A Conceptual Model Linking Meaning and Salience to Health,” Review of General Psychology, March 2018. Researchers reviewed evidence linking a meaningful life with reduced stress and better coping skills. They suggest that becoming aware of meaning during one’s daily life is responsible for the positive mental health effects of having a greater sense of meaning. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults,” Psychology and Aging, June 2013. This study included 1,654 people, ages 51 to 91, who were part of the Health and Retirement Study. Just over 40 percent of the participants reported volunteering in the year before they were interviewed. Those who had volunteered at least 200 hours a year were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure during the four-year follow-up period than those who volunteered fewer hours. People who volunteered for more hours also had greater well-being. Though the study could not prove that volunteering improves blood pressure, it did account for chronic illnesses that might have accounted for blood pressure differences. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Can volunteering in later life reduce the risk of dementia? A 5-year longitudinal study among volunteering and non-volunteering retired seniors,” PloS One, March 2017. For this study, researchers in Sweden gave questionnaires to more than 1,000 older adults who were enrolled in a drug registry. Participants who volunteered reported fewer problems with concentration, decision-making, memory and thinking clearly at two time points: in 2012 and 2014. They also were less likely to be prescribed medications for dementia than those who never volunteered. One drawback to the study was that most people in the group didn’t have problems with thinking and memory, and few were prescribed dementia medication overall. Read the full study.