The Productive Engagement of Older Adults As Volunteers: Meeting Agenciesí Needs While Promoting Health in Later Life
Non-profit and public agencies rely on volunteers. In the face of shrinking public investments, it is likely that more volunteers will be needed in the education, health and social service sectors. At the same time, the rapid growth of the older population has brought increased attention to volunteering in later life. Research has demonstrated that volunteering not only meets agency needs, it simultaneously improves the lives of older adults — perhaps more than younger people. The human capital of the aging population is growing, as each generation to date has been healthier and more educated; and advocates call for maximizing the involvement of older adults as volunteers -- for the sake of communities as well as older adults themselves.
Research on the topic has grown substantially in the last decade. Scholars from all disciplines are asking questions about motivations and factors associated with volunteering in later life as well as outcomes of volunteering for the agencies and for the older adults. The research has become more methodologically sophisticated, with the widespread availability of large data sets of representative samples of older adults. Social work scholars have contributed to this knowledge base and have brought a more applied perspective, given their appreciation of the effect of volunteering on the non-profit and public agencies as well as their interest in promoting well-being among older adults. In this session, social work researchers present state-of-the art studies that represent the current directions in the study of volunteering in later life.
The four papers in the symposium are tied closely to the theme of older adults and formal volunteering. Chen and Morrow-Howell use a life-course perspective to study motivations to volunteering among older adults. They document that ethnicity and gender are related to reasons for volunteering among older adults but that different motivations are not related to subsequent volunteer outcomes. Applying a capital framework, Ben Nowell identifies human, social, and cultural factors associated with formal volunteering among Baby Boomers. Findings about the effects of religion and education can guide efforts to capture the tremendous amount of human resources represented by this group as they enter their retirement years. Matz-Costa, Carr, and McNamara seek to increase understanding about the pathways through which volunteering and other productive activities produce health outcomes. Their findings suggest that the use of body, use of mind, and social interactions mediates the relationship between engagement in productive roles and health outcomes. Finally, Gonzales, Morrow-Howell and McBride use role theory to study the extent to which volunteering facilitates or attenuates the ability to return to work after retirement. Findings that volunteering is a pathway to work for older adults are important for program development in the employment and volunteer sectors. Each study employs strong quantitative methods as well as presents important implications for social programs and policies to better engage older adults as volunteers.