By Patricia A. Parmelee, PhD, and Rebecca S. Allen, PhD (Alabama Research Institute on Aging, The University of Alabama)
The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
– Mahatma Gandhi
May is Older Americans Month, and the theme this year is “Get into the Act!” The celebration emphasizes not only how people take charge of their own health, but also how to get engaged in the communities and work to make a difference in the lives of others. This is an especially apt theme, because volunteerism in the U.S. is at an all-time high–and older adults are doing a lot of the volunteering.
Older Americans have always been a key part of the volunteer workforce. They are likely to play an even more crucial role as retiring Baby Boomers look for ways to occupy their newfound leisure time. Despite the known limitations that may accompany later life, roughly one in four persons over 65 does some volunteering each year. Older volunteers are in many ways a more reliable resource than middle-aged or younger adults, putting in more hours with a greater number of organizations. Yet, organizations are less likely to invite people over 65 to volunteer even though, if invited, they say yes more often. They are far more likely to volunteer than younger people asked to do the same service.[i]
Why do older people volunteer? Erik Erikson characterized mature adulthood as a challenge of generativity – establishing a legacy for future generations versus focusing all one’s emotional energy inward, on oneself. According to Erikson, it is that sense of accomplishment and productivity that enables us to face the last years of life with integrity and continuing hope. In interviews older volunteers confirm that generativity—feeling useful and able to help others—is an important motive for them.[ii] In fact, many older people may not even think of themselves as volunteers: they are simply “helping out” where they see a need.[iii] And older volunteers, like other volunteers, benefit personally as well.
Volunteering does have some very real benefits for older persons. However, interpreting research on the effects of volunteer work in later life can be tricky. For example, poor physical health is a frequent barrier to volunteerism among older people. This makes it difficult to distinguish the chicken from the egg in early research that showed better health and wellbeing among volunteers than nonvolunteers later in life. However, more recent, longitudinal studies confirm that volunteering can help people stay physically healthy and active, maintain and improve emotional well-being, and even maintain good cognitive functioning throughout life. In fact, several studies suggest that those who volunteer their time and services may live longer than those who do not. [iv]
In fact, older people who seem on the surface to be least suited to volunteering may, in fact, benefit the most from the experience. For example, although less educated and lower income elders are not as likely to volunteer, those who do may reap greater benefits than their more well-to-do peers.[v] Formal volunteer activities can help individuals cope with depression[vi] and recover from the loss of a loved one.[vii] Thus, we need not only to welcome those older people who do volunteer, but to reach out to those who do not.
So what can we do to encourage volunteerism in later life? If you’re looking to recruit older adults to help with your organization or cause, be sure to:
- Appeal to generativity. Make it clear what the need is, why it’s important, and how older volunteers can help fill it.
- Capitalize on experience. Evaluate older volunteers’ skills carefully and use them to the fullest.
- Never underestimate. Even those with physical or sensory deficits can and do make valuable contributions. Be creative in accommodating minor limitations.
- Watch your language. Not everyone appreciates being called a “senior citizen”! Instead of age, emphasize experience, skills, and the importance of the cause.
Finally, if you are an older adult, follow the theme of Older Americans Month and get into the act! Where can you start? There are many options at the community, national and even international level. Perhaps the best know program specializing in later-life volunteer opportunities is the national Senior Corps, a government agency that oversees the Retired Senior Volunteers, Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions program. For information about the program nationwide, visit their website. Even better, while you’re on the web, search for local arms of these and other programs in your area. Touching base with senior centers, hospitals and healthcare associations, and your local United Way are also good paths to explore volunteering your time.
Whatever the specific focus, volunteering helps not just the community, but the volunteer as well. So choose your cause, market your skills, and get busy making a difference. It could mean not just a fuller life, but a longer one too!
[i] Independent Sector (2000). America’s senior volunteers. Washington, DC: Author.
[ii] Warburton, J., Terry, D. J., Rosenman, L. S., & Shapiro, M. (2007). Differences between older volunteers and nonvolunteers: Attitudinal, normative, and control beliefs. Research on Aging, 23(5), 586-605.
[iii] Brown, J. W., Chen, S.-L., Mefford, L., Brown, A., Callen, B., & McArthur, P. (2011).Becoming an older volunteer: A grounded theory study. Nursing Research and Practice, doi:10.1155/2011/361250.
[iv] For recent reviews of the effects of volunteering for older adults, see (a) Morrow-Howell, N. (2010). Volunteering in late life: Research frontiers. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 65B(4), 461-569, and (b) Anderson, N.D., Damianakis, T., Krӧger, E., Wagner, L.M., Dawson, D.R., Binns, M.A., Bernstein, S., Caspi, E., & Cook, S. L. for the BRAVO Team. (2014). The benefits associated with volunteering among seniors: A critical review and recommendations for future research. Psychological Bulletin. doi.org/10.1037/a0037610.
[v] Morrow-Howell, N., Hong, S., & Tang, F. (2009). Who benefits from volunteering? Variations in perceived benefits. The Gerontologist, 49, 91-102.
[vi] Li, Y., & Ferraro, K. F. (2005) Volunteering and depression in later life: Social benefit or selection process? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 46, 68-84.
[vii] Brown, S. L., Brown, R. M., House, J. S., & Smith, D. M. (2008). Coping with spousal loss: Potential buffering effects of self-reported helping behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 849-861.
Patricia A. Parmelee, PhD, is Director of the Alabama Research Institute on Aging and Professor of Psychology at the University of Alabama. A social psychologist by training, she has been active in research and services for the elderly for more than 30 years, and is nationally known for her work on quality of life and quality of care for chronically ill older persons. Prior to joining the UA faculty in 2008, Dr. Parmelee held positions at the Emory University School of Medicine, the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and the Birmingham/Atlanta Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center. She previously served as Vice President for Outcomes Management at Genesis Health Ventures, a Pennsylvania-based provider of long-term care; as Associate Director of Research and Senior Research Psychologist at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, and as Associate Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She is an elected Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the Gerontological Society of America.
Dr. Allen received her Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis in 1994. She is a Professor of Psychology at The University of Alabama with a primary appointment in the Alabama Research Institute on Aging. Her research and clinical interests are: 1) interventions to reduce the stress of individuals, family, and professional caregivers within the context of advanced chronic or terminal illness; 2) the cultural dynamics (race/ethnicity; rural/urban) of healthcare decision making; and 3) clinical training, particularly ethics and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Dr. Allen has received external funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute for translational interventions and community-based participatory research. She has published on translation of end-of-life/Dignity interventions through working with volunteers, diversity in advance care planning, clinical training, behavioral interventions in long-term care, and mental health among aging prisoners. Dr. Allen is board certified in geropsychology, a member of the American Board of Geropsychology, a Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America and the American Psychological Association, and is Associate Editor of Aging and Mental Health. She teaches Clinical Psychology of Aging-Intervention, Lifespan Development, Geropsychology Practicum, and undergraduate statistics.