ENGAGING IN VOLUNTEERISM MAY HOLD SIGNIFICANT HEALTH BENEFITS
By Iya Vargas
Engaging in productive activities, such as volunteering, may hold significant health benefits for older adults. Compared to their non-volunteering counterparts, older adults who volunteer have reduced risk of hypertension, lower mortality rates, delayed physical disability, enhanced cognition, lower rates of depression, and report higher levels of life satisfaction, and decreased physical dependency1-11. Many older adults, however, do not volunteer. Of cited reasons, the most frequent are barriers that include lack of skills, transportation, and awareness of volunteering opportunities12. The effects of these barriers are most pronounced among older adults of lower socioeconomic status (SES)13,14. Indeed, volunteerism is more common among those with higher educational attainment. Consequently, volunteering rates are especially low among lower income older adults, in part due to opportunities being inaccessible in low income communities. Importantly, this may contribute to widening wealth gaps in psychological and physical benefits of volunteering, as opportunities are readily available only to those who already have economic resources and advantages15, 16. One particularly powerful avenue for change is through institutions. Previous research has examined the importance of institutions in shaping individual behaviors. For example, financial institutions can influence saving behavior by offering savings incentive programs17. Institutions can both constrain and support individuals’ engagement in a variety of behaviors. Institutions, therefore, can be instrumental in overcoming barriers to volunteerism and facilitating participation of older adults across the economic spectrum. For instance, implementing volunteer role and schedule flexibility, access to transportation, compensation, and recognition are some tools currently used by non-profits to facilitate volunteerism18. Institutional-level adoption of these same facilitators can make volunteerism more accessible to older adults with fewer resources.
Providing flexibility for older volunteers to have control over their schedules and activities may help recruit and retain older adults who have limited resources. For example, for older adults who don’t have easy access to transportation, having the opportunity to volunteer from home might allow them to provide their service in a meaningful and valuable way. Another barrier to volunteering for low-income older adults might be the costs that come with volunteering; thus, providing small stipends, enough to cover out of pocket costs of volunteering, may increase the rates of volunteer participation in less affluent communities. Furthermore, despite having a desire to volunteer, older adults with fewer skills and abilities may feel inexperienced in certain volunteer roles; acknowledging and appreciating volunteer contributions may alleviate such feelings, all the more so among those whose contributions to society may have gone unrecognized by society at large.
Because volunteerism is considered a social model for health promotion, the systematic exclusion of disadvantaged older adults could further exacerbate existing disparities in health and well-being. Institutional facilitation of volunteering is particularly important in recruiting disadvantaged older adults who would otherwise not volunteer because of a lack of economic resources. As millions of baby boomers age and move toward retirement, the need to increase volunteer involvement and muster this societal resource back into the communities is great. Existing campaigns to increase volunteer engagement of older adults are often criticized as elitist; to move away from such criticism, social institutions must make every effort to promote and facilitate inclusion of all older adults. Imagine an army of older volunteers who come from different backgrounds, cultures, families and circumstances, who are experienced, emotionally stable and healthy, and willing and capable to help solve problems in their communities. This vision is possible with the proper planning and programs. Indeed, successful institutional-level adoption of volunteerism will generate a “win-win-win” situation for the community, individual beneficiaries of volunteering, and older volunteers.
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