Abstract: Health Benefits of Formal Volunteering on Older Adults with Cognitive Impairment (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Health Benefits of Formal Volunteering on Older Adults with Cognitive Impairment

Friday, January 18, 2019: 10:45 AM
Continental Parlor 8, Ballroom Level (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
KyongWeon Lee, MSW, PhD Candidate, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Background: In the U.S., an estimated 5.1 million older adults age 65 and over have cognitive impairment, and the number is expected to rise to 13.2 million by 2050. As age is one of the greatest risk factors for cognitive impairment, cognitive health has gained much attention while the nation’s older population is expanding. Cognitive impairment (CI) among older adults is considered a key factor influencing disengagement from society. Relating to the grand challenge of Advancing Long and Productive Lives, productive activities, such as volunteering, may help health and well-being of older adults, particularly older adults with CI by providing them with outlets and opportunities to pursue their productive lifestyles. The purpose of the study was to understand the health and well-being benefits of formal volunteering on older adults with CI. This study examined the volunteer patterns of older adults with CI and if formal volunteering influenced physical and psychological well-being and cognitive health among older adults with CI over time.

Methods: Using panel survey data from the Health and Retirement Study, this study included community-dwelling older adults age 65 and older with CI (N=472). Cognitive impairment status in the sample was assessed based on the cognitive health score from the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status (x≤11) at the 2006 baseline. The same respondents were repeatedly measured at three time points, 2006, 2010, and 2014.

Results:The study data showed that 26% of older adults with CI participated in formal volunteer work at the 2006 baseline. Although their participation in volunteering decreased over time, older adults with CI participated in formal volunteer work to some extent, including nearly 8% of them who participated in formal volunteer work consistently over the years of 2006, 2010, and 2014. The results from linear-mixed-effects modeling showed that the level of physical well-being was greater among older adults who volunteered and the level of psychological well-being was greater among who consistently volunteered, compared to those who did not. Moreover, cognitive health slightly improved over time only among those who volunteered.

Implications: The study results were in line with previous research findings related to older adults with no cognitive impairment but further presented the positive health impact of formal volunteering in this vulnerable population. Formal volunteering is a good non-pharmacological intervention for older adults with mild CI, as it optimizes cognitive health as well as perceived well-being. Social workers need to assess not older adults’ routines but the extent to which their older clients are participating in healthy and productive lifestyles. If needed, they should be able to link older adults to meaningful social activities in the community, along with health recommendations. While communities aim to improve health and well-being of older adults through social participation opportunities, this study also suggests the development of more volunteer opportunities that are inclusive and accessible for older adults with CI. As this population may also reside in long-term care, long-term care facilities should offer meaningful social activities as routine services for this vulnerable population.