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People Everywhere Are Working for the Greater Good in the Second Half of Life

The Volunteer Factor

by Richard Adler

Aging Today, Vol. XXV, No. 4
July-August 2004

No one doubts that volunteers are good for society. In fact, all societies depend on volunteers, both formal and informal, to address a wide range of problems that other social and political institutions cannot solve by themselves. Having a large and active group of volunteers is one of the hallmarks of a healthy society. But is volunteering good for those who volunteer as well?

Clearly, volunteers tend to enjoy a sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment from helping others, and recent findings suggest that this feeling may well be a major reason why many people choose to volunteer.

SURPRISING RESULTS

A growing body of social science research has explored the benefits of volunteering for the volunteers, particularly for older adults. In addition to measuring the psychological rewards of volunteering, this research provides some surprising results: It turns out that the benefits of volunteering go well beyond just making the participants feel better about themselves; it helps them stay healthy and may even prolong their lives. The research also sheds some light on the mechanisms involved with successful aging and suggests that the benefits of volunteering may be more significant for older adults than for younger people.

A number of studies have shown that older adults who volunteer regularly tend to be happier as a group than those who don't volunteer. According to researcher Neenah L. Chappel in her 1999 study, Volunteering and Healthy Aging: What We Know (Volunteer Canada, Manulife Financial and Health Canada), "Studies demonstrate that 70% of older volunteers claim to enjoy a better quality of life than the average nonvolunteer." A survey by the Seniors Research Group published in the October 1999 issue of the organization's publication, Voice and Variety, showed that 52% of elders who volunteer frequently say that they are very satisfied with life, compared with 45% of occasional volunteers and only 37% of nonvolunteers.

In addition, the benefits of volunteering extend over time. Marc A. Musick and John Wilson reported in "Volunteering and Depression" (Social Science and Medicine, January 2003) that among the participants in a longitudinal survey, those who were involved in volunteering at the beginning of the study were, as a group, less depressed eight years later.

There is also evidence that older volunteers are not just happier but also physically healthier than nonvolunteers. Michelle C. Carlson and others showed in the journal Aging Clinical and Experimental Research (April 2000) that among a group of participants in Experience Corps, the federally supported Americorps program that brings older adults into schools, "many who reported baseline difficulties on cognitively complex activities of daily living, such as driving a car or using a map," showed improvements in doing these tasks in a follow-up study done nine months later.

Other studies show longer-lasting effects. In a 1992 study of women over a 30-year period, Phyllis Moen and colleagues wrote in American Journal of Sociology that those who were involved in volunteer activities retained higher levels of functional abilities compared with nonvolunteers. Furthermore, in the May 1998 issue of Research on Aging, F. W. Young and N. Glasgow reviewed seven longitudinal studies ranging from three to 30 years and found that all of them reported a positive relationship between participation in formal volunteering and health.

IMPACT ON MORTALITY

A mounting body of research indicates that engagement in volunteering and similar activities is associated with living longer.

For example, as reported in the May 1999 issue of Journal of Gerontology: Social Science, Musick and his colleagues studied a group of 1,211 adults over age 65 and found that those who reported having volunteered for even a modest amount of time at the beginning of the study (approximately one-third of the total sample) had a substantially lower mortality rate over a seven-year period. Corroborating this finding was a more recent study by Stephanie L. Brown and coauthors in the July 2003 issue of Psychological Science, which found that older adults who gave support to a spouse, other relative, friends or neighbors had a reduced risk of mortality. By contrast, receiving support from others had no effect on mortality.

Moreover, in the "Successful Aging" chapter of Brocklehurst's Textbook of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology, 6th edition (London: Churchill Livingstone, 2003) a review by Thomas Glass of nine longitudinal studies determined that all of them showed that social network integration and social support, as well as continued social engagement, are related to living longer. Also, John Rowe and Robert Kahn's landmark study, Successful Aging (New York City: Pantheon Books, 1998), found that the risk of death was two to four times as great for those whose social relationships were fewer and weaker. Staying connected and engaged in helping others is apparently a good way to stay alive.

Furthermore, recent research suggests that volunteering is particularly valuable for older people. Musick and Wilson, in their 2003 study cited earlier, concluded that the impact of volunteering on reducing depression was "significantly stronger for older people than for young people." Moen and Vivian Fields reported in Ageing Internationa (July 2002) that in their research, "formal community participation is positively associated with well-being, but only for retirees." They suggest that regular involvement in activities such as volunteering "might replace the various salutary aspects associated with a career job." Volunteering not only keeps older people active and involved, but also provides them with a sense of meaning and purpose that paid work may have provided at an earlier stage of life.

This research is provocative and encouraging, but one important caveat must be mentioned. Few of these studies use truly experimental designs – rather, they are based on surveys that reveal correlations between factors but do not demonstrate a causal relationship between them. Although the available data show that volunteering is positively associated with well-being – and even with lower mortality rates – they do not prove definitively that volunteering is the cause of these good effects. However, the fact that retirees show greater benefits from volunteering than non-retirees does suggest that volunteering has a real, positive value for older adults.

Although research establishing that volunteering is good for older adults is relatively new, the basic concept is not so new. Consider this comment written in 1902 by Edmund Sanford, which eloquently sums up the case for volunteering in later life:

"The real secret of a happy old age is being once more in service for others carried on to the end of life – a service which, on the one hand, gives perennial interest to life by making the old [person] a participant in the life of all those about him, and on the other, surrounds him with love in return."

Happy beginnings
Happy beginnings

Dr. Jack McConnell unretired from golfing to start Volunteers in Medicine, a growing network of free clinics staffed by medical professionals over age 55.


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