The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Quality of Engagement in Work, Volunteering, and Caregiving in Later Life and Its Relationship to Well-Being

Friday, January 18, 2013: 2:30 PM
Marina 6 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Christina J. Matz-Costa, PhD, Assistant Professor, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
Elyssa Besen, BA, Research Associate, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
Jacquelyn James, PhD, Director of Research, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, PhD, Director, Center on Aging & Work; Associate Professor, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA
Background and Purpose. While productive activities have been central to research on later life well-being, the nature and experience of older adults’ involvements are not well understood.  To the extent that participation in productive roles contributes to healthy and vital aging, a full account of how and why will depend on a more holistic understanding of older adults’ subjective experiences within these roles. Psychological engagement (hereon engagement) refers to one’s ability to enthusiastically connect on a deep and meaningful level with a role. While there is a well-developed body of knowledge on engagement within paid work, little is known about what engagement looks and feels like in other later life roles (e.g., volunteering and caregiving) and how engagement in these roles relates to overall well-being. In the current study, we extend the concept of engagement to other later life roles and test competing hypotheses regarding the extent to which there is a differential impact of level of engagement—in the productive roles of paid work, volunteering, and caregiving—on older adults’ well-being.

Methods. Using data from the 2010 Life & Times in an Aging Society Study, we employ a treatment effects model to test the impact of four levels of engagement (not involved, and low, medium, and high engagement) on subjective well-being among a sample of 330 adults age 50 to 83. Physical health, age, household income, education, marital status, gender, and involvement in other productive roles were considered as covariates.

Results. Consistent with activity theory, continuity theory, and the successful aging paradigm, across all activities, those who were high in engagement reported higher well-being than those who were not involved in the role. However, contrary to these theories and in line with Kahn’s Personal Engagement theory, those who were low in engagement consistently reported lower levels of well-being than those not involved in the role. These findings suggest that just staying involved in and of itself may not be the key to mental health in later life; instead the quality of one's experience with paid work, volunteering, and caregiving plays an important role in the extent to which involvement leads to positive outcomes.

Conclusions and Implications:  These analyses have several implications for practice settings with older adults.  In general, analyses suggest that quality of paid work, volunteer, and caregiving roles matter with regard to the well-being of older adults.  Those working with older adult populations should make an effort to ensure that the role environments that older adults are operating within are providing the types of resources that these individuals need to be successful and to fully engage. For example, social workers may be in positions to create/design volunteer opportunities in which older adults might participate. In doing so, attention should be paid to creating environments that are challenging, yet provide ample resources, including autonomy, task significance, social support, and continued learning and growth, as these role design features have been found to relate positively to engagement.