Abstract: Psychosocial Impact of Volunteering on Older Adults with Adverse Childhood Experiences (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Psychosocial Impact of Volunteering on Older Adults with Adverse Childhood Experiences

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 8, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kathy Lee, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington, TX
Joseph Harwerth, BA, MSW Student, University of Texas at Arlington, TX
Background and purpose: An abundance of research illustrates the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs refer to traumatic events, such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, parental divorce, or incarceration of a parent or guardian (Sacks et al., 2014). According to the National Survey of Children’s Health (2012), more than half of adolescents have had at least one of these ACEs. Research has found that older adults who were physically abused by their parent(s) earlier in their lives had a significantly higher risk of suffering from poor mental health and well-being (Nelson et al., 2002). Further, childhood physical as well as sexual abuse had a stronger influence than other types of ACEs throughout a person’s lifespan (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2018). Researchers have explored interventions (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy) that help the mental health and well-being of those who experienced physical abuse by their parent(s). However, the majority of interventions are short-term and often stop when the child is grown. Although multiple studies have examined the association between volunteering and positive health and well-being outcomes for older adults, little research has examined if volunteering is also associated with psychosocial well-being among older adults who had ACEs. This study examined the differing effects of volunteering on life satisfaction, loneliness, and purpose in life among older adults who were physically abused by their parent(s) after controlling for demographic characteristics (e.g., age, gender, degree, and race/ethnicity).

Methods: This study used data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a national representative survey of individuals over the age of 50. The respondents were asked if they were physically abused by their parent(s) in childhood and adolescence before the age of 18, during the 2006 to 2012 survey period. To provide a snapshot of the prevalence of ACEs among the HRS respondents and its association with volunteering and psychosocial well-being, we analyzed cross-sectional data from 2012 (n=6,887). Hierarchical linear regressions were conducted, and an interaction term between volunteering and their ACEs was added to the models.

Results: Those who experienced ACEs were associated with higher levels of loneliness and lower levels of purpose in life, and life satisfaction, compared to those who did not experience ACEs. While volunteering was associated with positive psychosocial well-being outcomes in both groups, older adults who were physically abused by their parent(s) and those who were not (p<.001), volunteering had a greater positive impact on the level of loneliness among those who were physically abused by their parent(s), compared to those who were not, and it was statistically significant (p=.005).

Conclusion and Implications: ACEs have an influence on the development of poor physical and mental health in adulthood. Furthermore, these traumatic early childhood events can isolate individuals as they age. In addition to consistent efforts for their health and health care issues, productive activities, such as volunteering, have potential to help them recover quality social ties and stay engaged in the community while achieving optimal psychosocial well-being outcomes later in their lives.