Abstract: Spousal Loss, Depressive Symptoms, and Community-based Volunteering (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

42P Spousal Loss, Depressive Symptoms, and Community-based Volunteering

Friday, January 15, 2010
* noted as presenting author
Kimberly J. Johnson, MS MSW , University of Massachusetts at Boston, PhD Candidate, Boston, MA
Purpose. The purpose of this study is to investigate whether formal volunteering moderates the negative stress-related outcome of increased depressive symptoms associated with the death of a spouse. Prior research suggests that older adults who engage in community-based volunteering experience positive effects on their psychosocial well-being and experience less depression compared with nonvolunteers. It is plausible that these benefits from volunteering will extend to moderating the depressive effects of a stressful life event (the death of a spouse).

Methods. Using data from four waves of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), married respondents 60 and older in 1998 are followed over 6 years (n = 6853), and the number of depressive symptoms of married and widowed respondents is compared at follow-up. Depressive symptoms are measured using a short form of the Center of Epidemiological Studies Depression scale [CES-D(8)]. The baseline sample is 52.0% male, has a mean age of 69.9 years, and reports a mean number of depressive symptoms of 1.3 (range = 0-8) indicating a low level of depressive symptoms.

Results. During the study period, 992 respondents reported the death of their spouse, and 29.3% of the recently widowed respondents reported volunteering.

Bivariate results comparing the mean number of depressive symptoms of the recently widowed volunteers and nonvolunteers show a mean difference of 0.78 (T = 5.45 p < .001) with volunteers reporting fewer depressive symptoms. Multivariate analyses involving hierarchical stepwise multinomial logistic regression are used to estimate the moderating effect of volunteering on depressive symptoms with potential baseline confounding variables held constant. The results reveal a significant relationship between spousal loss, volunteering, and depressive symptoms.

Conclusions and Implications. The findings contribute to the literature on the value of social engagement for maintaining the health and well-being of the recently widowed. Active participation in the community through volunteer work is shown to assist older adults in maintaining good psychological health when facing a major life stressor of the death of a spouse. The findings have implications for social work practitioners, who could integrate these findings into psychoeducational programs for bereaved older adults. Social Workers could then provide willing clients with appropriate referrals for volunteer opportunities with community organizations. These findings can also help social workers and other advocates in promoting community support systems that assist older adults to maintain active roles in their community such as transportation systems, universal design, and public education about aging and ageism.