Volunteering is an important component of an active and productive old age. Although there is a rich body of literature on the predictors and outcomes of volunteering among the general older adults in the United States (U.S.), few studies have explored the volunteering experiences of culturally and linguistically diverse older adults, who are an important fabric of U.S. communities. Given the growing number of diverse older adults in the U.S. and the importance of optimizing their contributions to society, this study investigates the challenges and benefits of volunteering among low-income diverse older adults.
We conducted eight 90-minute focus groups in six languages (English, Nepali, Khmer, Somali, Russian, and Chinese) with 70 older volunteers (male= 40%, female=60%; mean age=76.81 years, SD=8.51) attending a Senior Companion monthly in-service training in a Midwestern metropolitan area. The Senior Companions program paired low-income older adults (age 55 and above) with their co-ethnic homebound older adults to provide transportation and/or companionship visits (Catholic Social Services, 2016). Trained facilitators conducted the focus groups with assistance from certified interpreters. Data analysis followed the Rapid and Rigorous Qualitative Data Analysis (RADaR) technique and thematic analysis through an interactive team approach.
Participants discussed the challenges and benefits of volunteering. Six overarching themes emerged from the analysis: (1) Transportation challenges in volunteering. The cost of car maintenance and limited mileage reimbursement made volunteering challenging. Older volunteers found it difficult to transport clients to destinations exceeding the mileage reimbursement, as one volunteer stated, "my hands can be a little tied". (2) Community emergencies and workload challenges. Some participants were overwhelmed because there were "always emergencies in the community" and participants were usually "the only outlet" for their clients. (3) Family caregiving challenges. Several older volunteers found it hard to volunteer while caring for their family members with disabilities. (4) Stress-relieving benefits of volunteering. Participants regard volunteering as "a way to spend time and to help with stress". (5) Training and information benefits. The monthly training informed participants of transportation and other services. Additionally, older volunteers exchanged information about the home country with their clients. (6) Peer support and networking benefits. Although some older volunteers felt "excluded from the cultural life" of the city due to transportation, language, and cultural barriers, connecting with other co-ethnic volunteers and clients offer some sense of inclusion.
Volunteering has benefits on diverse older volunteers' stress management, social connections, and information access. Challenges in volunteering include transportation barriers, family caregiving, and community emergencies. Older diverse volunteers perceiving themselves as the "only outlet" for their co-ethnic homebound older adults reflects the lack of services for homebound diverse older adults.
Study findings have implications for recruiting and retaining diverse older volunteers. Social workers can expand social services for both diverse older volunteers and homebound older adults. Improving the transportation experiences of older volunteers requires interdisciplinary collaboration. Recognizing and supporting diverse older volunteers who are family caregivers can sustain their volunteering. In-service training and peer support facilitate volunteering among diverse older adults.