The Volunteerism of Older Adults

Community Connections California Assisted Living AssociationThink about a time when you helped someone. Maybe you were tutoring a fellow student in a subject that you knew well, or maybe you stopped to help a stranded motorist. Maybe you were involved in planning a large-scale event for a charity. Maybe it was something as simple as buying extra food at the grocery store for a food drive or donating money to a meaningful cause.

Now, think about how those actions made you feel. Did you feel a sense of well-being? Did your spirits lift? Were you energized by a feeling of purpose? Regardless of the time or effort involved, helping others quite simply makes us feel good. And according to research, helping others – volunteering – can have particular benefits for older adults.

Volunteering is one of three types of engagement outlined in the paper “Social Participation as an Indicator of Successful Aging” published in the Australian Health Review in 2016. Authors Heather Douglas, Andrew Georgiou, and Johanna Westbrook performed a review of studies which found that “there are multiple concepts that are either used to describe aspects of or used interchangeably with the term ‘social participation.’” For clarity’s sake, they grouped the various terms into three categories: social connections, informal social participation, and volunteering.

Assisted living, memory care, and CCRCs are excellent at encouraging social connections and social participation. Just take a look at any community’s activity calendar to get a good idea of the many opportunities for personal enjoyment and engagement. And according to Promatura’s 2016 study, “California’s Assisted Living Communities Provide Quality of Life to Residents and Family Members,” 93 percent of residents say they have made new friends with other residents, 95 percent are comfortable with the people in their communities, and 98 percent find the staff friendly, all leading to a feeling of companionship and social connection.

Casa de Flores residents bake dog biscuits to raise money for the local animal shelter as part of the Seniors Saving Seniors program.

But there can be barriers to volunteering for older adults, as a 2015 report published in The Gerontologist found. Authors Ernest Gonzales, Christina Matz-Costa, and Nancy Morrow-Howell write in “Increasing Opportunities for the Productive Engagement of Older Adults” that “disparities in economic and health resources as well as other structural barriers (e.g., lack of knowledge about volunteer opportunities, lack of skills, time constraints)” can make it harder for older adults to participate in volunteering activities. In addition, older adults with disabilities, both physical and cognitive, as well as those who serve as caregivers for a loved one such as a spouse, face difficulties as well.

A 2016 report in the journal Geriatric Nursing agrees. In “The Volunteering-in-Place (VIP) Program,” authors N. Jennifer Klinedinst and Barbara Resnick write that “unfortunately, the majority of the volunteer activities available to older adults are relevant only for those who are physically able, willing, and have the cognitive capacity to plan for and engage in these volunteer activities.” This is unfortunate because, as Klinedinst and Resnick point out, “volunteerism for all older adults has been associated with numerous benefits including such things as longer lifespan, slower functional decline, increased time spent in physical and other activities, less depression, a sense of feeling useful, better self-perceived health and better quality of life.”

Klinedinst and Resnick studied the Volunteering-in-Place (VIP) Program, which was developed for older adults with MCI in assisted living. The VIP Program is overseen by a volunteer coordinator who employs four steps to accommodate the needs of older adults with MCI:

  1. Environmental scan and staff education
  2. Assessments of residents’ abilities and interests
  3. Ongoing implementation of the VIP Program
  4. Individualized reassessment of the volunteer activity

Basically, the volunteer coordinator oversees all aspects of the volunteering program. The coordinator assesses the community’s environment to see if there are any barriers to volunteering, helps staff to understand the importance of volunteering for residents, and checks in with the residents themselves each step of the way.

An Eskaton resident helps a student practice reading as part of the Kids Connection program.

A key step is the assessment of residents’ abilities and interests. Brainstorming with residents on volunteering tasks that they would be interested in doing, as well as making sure that the resident can successfully complete the task according to their ability, should lead to a higher rate of volunteering. According to Klinedinst and Resnick, the coordinator may employ “motivational strategies including cueing, encouragement, modeling, [and] positive reinforcement” to help residents complete their volunteering tasks.

For this study, Klinedinst and Resnick looked a single group of 10 residents at one community. They measured a baseline prior to the start of the program as well as outcomes at three and six months, and found “the benefit of the program was clearly noted by staff members across all levels…residents in the VIP Program reported less depressive symptoms, more feelings of usefulness, purpose, resilience, life satisfaction and more minutes spent in recreational activity.”

Does your community have a resident volunteer program, or a program for those living with dementia? Have you noticed similar benefits in the lives of your residents? Tell us about it in the comments below!

This post was excerpted from an article originally published in CALA News & Views Winter 2017: Engage.


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