Volunteering and Health for Aging Populations
In the next two decades, the number of Americans age 55 or
older will swell from 76 million to 110 million as the large
baby-boom generation continues to age. Older Americans’
health and well-being is important for the entire society, and
the longer they can live independently, the lower the social
costs will be for the society as a whole. This e-newsletter provides
an overview of demographic characteristics of older
volunteers and highlights recent findings from research affiliates
of NIA-supported centers specializing in the demography,
economics, and epidemiology of aging.
Whether older Americans can delay or prevent disability
associated with advanced age will depend in part on how
they spend their time after retirement. A growing body of
research suggests that older adults who are engaged in social
and community activities maintain mental and physical
health longer than other older adults (Musick and Wilson
2008). Volunteer activities are one way of remaining socially
active after retirement (Luoh and Herzog 2002).
Beyond potential health benefits for the volunteers, nonprofit
organizations, governments, and community groups
see boosting volunteering among the increasing older population
as furthering several complementary goals, including:
- Providing services to those in need in a time of diminishing
- Helping run nonprofit organizations including churches,
community groups, and political parties, and nurturing a
new generation of leaders.
- Strengthening civil society by engaging more people in
the community (Morrow-Howell 2010).
Many local and national government officials believe that
increased volunteerism among older people would be a “win-win”
situation, with multiple beneficiaries. In the United
States, a 2005 White House Council on Aging called for
enhanced volunteer opportunities for older Americans
(Butrica, Johnson, and Zedlewski 2009), and in 2009,
President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy
Serve America Act, which aims to increase volunteer service
opportunities for older adults (Barron et al. 2009). Other
developed countries, many aging much faster than the United
States, are also attempting to harness the benefits of volunteering
for their societies and for their older populations (Musick
and Wilson 2008; Australian Bureau of Statistics 2010;
Statistics Canada 2010; Hank and Erlinghagen 2010).
Volunteering and Aging
Volunteering is generally defined as unpaid work for or
through an organization. It is distinct from informal “helping”
or caregiving, in which people may assist neighbors or friends
with certain tasks, such as grocery shopping, child care, or
yard work. While there is often overlap, these activities appear
to have different effects and involve different types of people
(Hank and Stuck 2008). People who commit to formal volunteering
are more likely also to engage in “helping,” but not the
reverse—people who help are not more likely to volunteer.
For example, someone who volunteers for their church may
also give informal help to a church member who cannot drive,
but someone who helps their disabled neighbor will not necessarily
engage in organized volunteer work.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that, in
2010, about 25 percent of Americans age 55 or older reported
that they had volunteered during the previous year, compared with 32 percent of those ages 35 to 44 (BLS 2009). The rate generally rises among those in their late 50s and
60s and begins to drop after age 70. In many European
countries, the percentage of people age 71 or older who volunteer
is one-half the rate of those ages 61 to 70
(Haski-Leventhal 2009). In the United States, a big drop is
recorded after age 80 (Boraas 2003), and in Australia after
age 85 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2010).
Older people tend to devote many more hours to volunteer
activities than middle-aged and younger adults. Americans
age 65 or older devoted a median of 96 hours annually, nearly
two hours weekly, to volunteer activities in 2010. The
median was 48 hours for Americans ages 35 to 44, and 40
hours for those 25 to 34. About 9 percent of the age 65-or-older
group worked at least 500 hours the previous year, 10
or more hours a week. The median number of volunteer
hours for the 65 and older population was similar in Canada
and Australia—around 100 (Australian Bureau of Statistics
2010; Statistics Canada 2010).
Even if volunteer rates and the time commitments remain
the same, the number of volunteers and the combined time
they contribute to volunteer activities will continue to
increase as populations age (Zedlewski 2007). If recent
efforts to bring older adults into volunteering are successful,
the volunteer ranks could swell.
Who Is Most Likely to Volunteer?
In general, older people are more likely to participate in an
organized volunteer effort if they are highly educated, have
higher incomes, work at least part time, are married, and
have a spouse who also volunteers (BLS 2009; Boraas 2003;
Morrow-Howell 2010; Rotolo and Wilson 2006, cited in
Butrica, Johnson, and Zedlewski 2009).
People who have completed more education and who
worked in higher-paying jobs have more skills and experience
of value to organizations. They may also feel more confident
about their ability to contribute in significant ways (Thoits
and Hewitt 2001).
Higher income people also have more varied social connections
and are more likely to be asked to volunteer
(Hodgkinson 1995, cited in Wilson and Musick 1997). And,
wealthier people may feel an obligation, stemming from their
higher social status, to contribute time to their community.
For similar reasons, people who are working are more likely
to volunteer than those who are not, even though they
appear to have less time for it.
In the United States, Australia, and Canada, women are
more likely to volunteer than men, but men often contribute
more hours when they do volunteer (Musick and Wilson,
2008; Australian Bureau of Statistics 2010; Statistics Canada
2010). However, a study of volunteering in Europe found men
more likely to volunteer than women in nine out of 12 countries
studied (Haski-Leventhal 2009; Hank and Erlinghagen
2010), although only in Israel was the gender gap significant.
Studies in several countries suggest that more-homogeneous
populations are more likely to volunteer, because people trust
others like themselves. Trust is important because people feel
more comfortable volunteering if they think that others will
expend as much effort as they will, that they will not have to
do more than their share (Musick and Wilson 2008).
Many people are brought into formal volunteering
through clubs, churches, or other organizations of which
they are members (Krause 2009), thus “joiners” are more
likely to become volunteers. People who volunteered in the
past are more likely to do so again, and those with a history
of volunteering are likely to continue longer than those who
did not. Those who volunteer in older ages are often the
same people who volunteered when they were younger.
People who actively practice their religion are much more
likely to volunteer than people who do not. Indeed, helping
with church activities is one of the most common ways older
people volunteer, especially in the United States (Krause 2009;
Butrica, Johnson, and Zedlewski 2009; Haski-Leventhal 2009).
Health status also determines whether an older person commits
time to volunteering (Butrica, Johnson, and Zedlewski
2009). As people age, many will develop health problems or
disabilities of varying severity, which can be a significant barrier
to volunteering (Li and Ferraro 2006; Musick and Wilson
2008, cited in Hank and Erlinghagen 2010).
Does Volunteering Enhance Health?
Researchers have identified a range of health benefits associated
with volunteer activity among older adults. However,
whether people choose to volunteer is dependent on their
health, making it difficult to determine the extent to which
better health among volunteers compared with nonvolunteers
may be attributed to volunteering itself. Among the
health benefits potentially attributable to volunteering are:
- Improved Self-Reported Health. Volunteers tend to
have a higher sense of self-esteem and personal control,
both of which are associated with the adoption of good
health behaviors. For some elderly, volunteering provides
a distraction from their own physical or personal problems,
encouraging a more positive attitude about their
health. All these factors contribute to volunteers being
more likely than others to say that they are in good or
better health (Luoh and Herzog 2002; Piliavin and Siegl
2007; Krause 2009; Haski-Leventhal 2009).
- Increased Physical Functioning. Many older adults develop
arthritis and other health problems that limit their ability
to walk, dress themselves, and perform basic tasks necessary
in everyday life (Tan et al. 2006). Regular physical
activity can slow or reverse physical decline by increasing cardiovascular function and improving flexibility and
strength, thereby slowing or reversing the effects of arthritis
and other limiting conditions. Volunteering enhances physical
activity because it often requires travel to and from the
volunteer location and tasks that involve physical activity—
for example, cooking and serving food, gardening, or interacting
with children (Lum and Lightfoot 2005; Moen,
Dempster-McClain, and Williams 1992).
- Better Cognitive Functioning. While many older people
remain mentally alert, many others see a decline in
cognitive function: Their memories are less certain,
their executive planning, or ability to plan and carry
out daily activities, slow down and become hampered
(Carlson et al. 2009). The mental stimulation generated
by planning and carrying out various volunteer responsibilities
helps to slow or offset this decline (Carlson et
al. 2008). Volunteering often involves interacting and
coordinating plans with others, and having to execute a
task on time (for example, organizing and serving food
for a church function). Physical activity and cardiovascular
conditioning also enhance people’s cognitive functioning
by, among other things, increasing brain activity
(Carlson et al. 2009). A recent study using data from
the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) showed that a
modest amount of volunteer activity lowered the risk of
hypertension, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease,
renal failure, and cognitive impairment (Burr, Tavares,
and Mutchler 2010).
- Reduced Depressive Symptoms. “Volunteering increases
psychological well-being in part because it leads people to
feel that they have an important role in society and that
their existence is important”—a factor referred to as “mattering”
by some researchers (Piliavin and Siegl 2007).
This helps prevent or reduce depression. A Japanese study
of older people found that volunteers had lower rates of
depression than nonvolunteers (Sato and Demura 2003,
cited in Haski-Leventhal 2009); some studies have documented
similar findings for Americans (Musick and
Wilson 2008; Li and Ferraro 2006).
- Longer Lives. Several studies have demonstrated that volunteering
is associated with lower mortality rates and longer
life expectancy. Marc Musick and colleagues (1999)
found that volunteers age 65 or older had lower mortality
than nonvolunteers over a follow-up period of about seven
years. Luoh and Herzog (2002) found that volunteering, at
least up to 100 hours a year, led to better health and lower
mortality. Another study found that older volunteers in a
California county had 44 percent lower mortality than others
over roughly five years (Piliavin and Siegl 2007).
Early studies of one volunteer program, Experience Corps
in Baltimore, suggest that even among less-healthy, poorer,
and sedentary individuals, the desire to volunteer is great and
volunteering can have health benefits. Results from an ongoing
randomized double-blind study of Experience Corps volunteers
will help determine whether the health benefits
observed from volunteering are observed, regardless of initial
health status. The next section presents findings from early
studies of the Experience Corps program and some preliminary
results of the ongoing randomized study.
Evidence From Experience Corps
The Experience Corps (EC) programs in Baltimore and a
number of other U.S. cities are considered successful efforts in
promoting the health and well-being of older volunteers as well
as helping children in low-performing schools in low-income
areas. The EC program matches older volunteers with elementary
schools where they serve as tutors and mentors for students.
The program aims to attain a “critical mass” of volunteers
in the schools to achieve significant improvements in academic
performance, school atmosphere, teacher retention, and
community/parent involvement (Glass et al. 2004).
EC volunteers are recruited from neighborhoods near the
low-performing schools in the program. They tend to be
lower income, less educated, and nonwhite—people usually
less likely to volunteer. Potential volunteers must pass a background
check, participate in an initial one-week training and
ongoing training related to their mentoring activities, and be
willing to commit about 15 hours a week in their elementary
school for the academic year. Volunteers are recruited and
trained in teams in order to ensure a critical presence in the
schools they serve. To offset the travel, lunch, and other costs
associated with this high-intensity service, many receive a
small stipend through the Americorps program.
The EC was designed to promote better health for the volunteer
through three pathways:
- Physical activity such as traveling to and from the school
and walking around the school building (Fried et al. 2004).
- Social engagement: interaction with teachers, EC staff, and
- Cognitive stimulation: tutoring students, preparing for
tutoring sessions, and training (Hong and Morrow-Howell
2010; Glass et al. 2004).
The program provided a unique opportunity to assess the
effects of volunteering on the health and well-being of individuals
over time, as well as to measure its success in improving
schools and raising students’ academic performance.
In the Baltimore program, started in 1999, volunteers were
60 to 86 years of age, and predominately female and African
American. A majority were high school graduates who reported
fair to good health. When they started in the program,
many reported mobility limitations with walking or climbing
stairs; difficulty with cognitive tasks such as reading a map
(Tan et al. 2009; Fried et al. 2004); and difficulty performing
tests of executive planning (Carlson et al. 2008).
Increased physical activity and function
EC Baltimore volunteers who said they had little physical
activity at the start of the program reported they had doubled
their level after four to eight months (Tan et al. 2006; Fried
et al. 2004). Those who said they were already physically
active at the beginning of the program maintained or slightly
increased their activity levels (Tan et al. 2006). After three
years in the program, African American EC volunteers
reported they walked farther (31 percent more blocks) and
climbed more stairs than they had before, while a comparison
group of nonvolunteers did not increase their activity (Tan et
al. 2009). Volunteers burned more calories four to six months
after they started their volunteer commitment, while the
comparison group actually burned fewer (Fried et al. 2004).
A majority of volunteers in the EC program increased their
strength and energy and reduced time spent watching TV.
Volunteers who reported they were in fair health when they
started in the program benefited most: They were able to
walk and climb stairs faster after just four to eight months
(Barron et al. 2009). Volunteers also were less likely to see a
decrease in their walking speed over time than similar people
in a control group.
Improved mental health and function
Based on anecdotal reports of participants, volunteering in
the Baltimore EC seems to have led to improved cognitive
ability and fewer symptoms of depression (Fried et al. 2004;
Carlson et al. 2009). Volunteers reported that they read
more books and magazines, chose more active and mentally
challenging activities (such as crossword puzzles), and
watched less television after they had started their volunteer
commitment than they had previously. In a study of brain
function, a sample of Baltimore volunteers showed
increased brain activity when performing executive tasks,
sharper memories, and greater ability to plan and carry out
tasks after six months in the program. These results are
promising because they were carried out among people at a
relatively high risk of cognitive impairment, according to
tests administered to the older adults before they started
their volunteer commitment. The results demonstrated the potential for a volunteer program to improve cognitive and
brain health by increasing cognitive, physical, and social
activity (Carlson et al. 2009).
Better overall health
Measured improvements in physical and mental health, along
with the social interactions with other volunteers, students,
and school personnel all contributed to volunteers having
better (or at least the same) overall health as they did before
starting the program. Even maintaining health may be considered
successful because many volunteers already had conditions
that worsen with advancing age. The results also suggested
that people in fair health benefited more from the EC
volunteer schedule and activities than those who initially
reported being in good or excellent health.
Benefits to the children and schools
The EC program also appears to have attained its other
major goals: to improve academic performance and school
functioning. To attain the critical mass necessary to have an
impact on classrooms and the school, at least one volunteer
was assigned to each EC classroom, with additional EC volunteers
in the library or administrative offices. The aim was
to free some of the teachers’ time in the classroom as well as
to enrich the experiences of individual students.
While some teachers and administrators were initially skeptical
about whether these older, inexperienced volunteers would
help rather than hinder their activities, most came to accept
and value them. Many teachers and school officials reported
the experience had changed their opinion about older volunteers.
In these low-performing schools often plagued by behavior
problems, many teachers felt that the EC tutors helped create
a positive atmosphere conducive to learning.
There were also more objective measures of success.
Children in classrooms with EC volunteers scored higher on
standardized reading tests (Morrow-Howell 2010).
Kindergarten students in EC classrooms increased their
vocabulary and knowledge of the alphabet (Rebok et al.
2004). Compared with other schools, fewer children in EC
schools were referred to the main office for misbehaving.
Office referrals fell by 50 percent in two of the EC schools,
and by 34 percent in another (Rebok et al. 2004).
The Benefits of Volunteering
Findings from the EC and surveys in the United States and
abroad have contributed a body of evidence that suggests volunteering
might enhance the well-being of older people, and
that programs might be designed to capitalize on those elements
of the volunteer experience that lead to better health.
The EC results also suggest that lower-income adults may be
recruited into intensive volunteer programs, and that they
too see real improvements to their health.
Volunteering is also a productive activity that enhances
valuable human resources and relationships in the community
at large (Wilson and Musick 1997; Van Willigen 2000).
Broader efforts to bring older people into volunteering and to
retain volunteers for longer might provide both health and
social benefits for countries facing rapidly aging populations.
However, much of the research on volunteering has not yet
taken into account the fact that healthy people are more likely
to be volunteers. To inform decisionmakers about the public
health benefits of volunteer commitments, future research
must be able to identify what the benefits of volunteering
would be if the decision to volunteer were independent of
initial health status.
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