Older volunteers’ perceived benefits vary with program traits

The advantages of volunteering reported by adults aged 55 and older are largely dependent upon the characteristics of the activities in which they participate, according to a recent article appearing in The Gerontologist (Vol. 49, No. 1). The lead author is Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, of Washington University in St. Louis.

She and her colleagues document the benefits of volunteering as identified by older adults ? a departure from many previous studies, which have focused on the benefits observed by researchers. They also compare reported benefits with information about the volunteer program, such as volunteer training, support, and stipends.

“These findings suggest that characteristics of volunteer programs can be strengthened to maximize the benefits of volunteering to older adults,” the authors state.

Morrow-Howell’s team sampled 401 people aged 55 and older from 13 volunteer programs. The volunteer activities included teaching, tutoring, mentoring, policing and public safety work, conservation efforts, and supportive counseling. More than 30 percent of participants said they were “a great deal better off” because of the service they contributed, and almost 60 percent identified a benefit to their families. Twenty percent reported improved overall health.

The reported benefits depended upon the participant’s demographics as well as the type and characteristics of activity.

For example, among those who received compensation for their work, the positive relationship between stipend and perceived advantages was weaker for the oldest of the 55+ sample, for non-white older adults, and for those with lower education and lower income.

Women and lower-income volunteers also reported more benefit than others from participating in public security programs. The researchers speculated that those older adults who traditionally had less authority thrived in roles involving law enforcement.

Support for this research was provided by the MetLife Foundation and the Longer Life Foundation.

The Gerontologist is a refereed publication of The Gerontological Society of America (GSA), the nation’s oldest and largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to research, education, and practice in the field of aging. The principal mission of the Society ? and its 5,000+ members ? is to advance the study of aging and disseminate information among scientists, decision makers, and the general public. GSA’s structure also includes a policy institute, the National Academy on an Aging Society, and an educational branch, the Association of Gerontology in Higher Education.

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