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Older adult’s social networks and volunteering

We know that volunteering is important for health and well-being among older people. While higher education is known to facilitate volunteerism, much less is known about the role of social networks. Networks are a social resource, important because of the relationships they engender and because they change over time. They may grow or diminish in size, and change in composition to include those who are in general older or younger, family, or friends. Changes in network size and composition offer opportunities to bridge or connect the individual to others. Moreover, network members may live closer or further away and engage in more or less contact over time. Changes in geographic proximity and contact frequency tap into bonding aspects of networks. We examine changes in social networks that promote connections with others through bridging and bonding, and then investigate whether such changes influence volunteerism directly, or in conjunction with education.

Education and social network characteristics may interact with one another to influence volunteering activities. One question we address in this study concerns a situation of substitution. Can access to advantageous social networks (e.g., larger, frequently seen, more proximal, higher proportion of friends) compensate for low education levels to predict volunteerism? In other words, will lacking in one resource (education) be substituted, and compensated for, by the strength inherent in the other (networks)? On the other hand, a situation of amplification may be more likely. Amplification emphasizes a cumulative advantage position because those who have high levels of education are better able to leverage advantages that come with helpful network characteristics. Hence, we draw from the traditions of social network theory as well as social gerontology to identify multiple dynamic dimensions of network structure and education as key factors that influence the outcome of volunteerism both directly and in conjunction with one another (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Interplay of Social Relations, Education, and Volunteerism
Figure 1: The Interplay of Social Relations, Education, and Volunteerism

Unique data on social networks collected from the same people in 1992 and 2005 (13 years apart) were used to identify how network changes influence the likelihood and frequency of volunteering through bridging and bonding mechanisms directly and in conjunction with education. The sample consisted of 543 adults living in the metro-Detroit area who ranged in age from 50 to 100 in 2005. Approximately one-third (32%) of participants reported volunteering. The amount of hours per year spent volunteering ranged from 0-780 hours. On average, those who volunteered did so approximately 67 hours during a year.

Network changes resulted in both bridging and bonding to influence whether or not people volunteer. Bridging elements that surfaced as important for volunteering has to do with who is in one’s network more than the size of one’s network. As networks change over time to comprise less family, the likelihood of volunteering increases. Bonding elements also mattered. As older adults developed more geographically proximal networks, they were more likely to volunteer. This bonding dimension may serve as a resource in an increasingly mobile society simply because proximity promotes face-to-face interactions, an important aspect of sociability, especially for older adults.

While bridging and bonding facilitate the likelihood of volunteering, bridging elements of networks also influence how often people volunteer. Again, it’s who is in the network that seems to matter most. As the older adults’ networks acquired younger members, volunteer frequency increased. It may be that volunteerism fills a void created by the loss of older network members. Additionally, having younger network members may simply prompt more activity and opportunities for volunteering among those 50 years and older.

Higher education levels were associated with a greater likelihood of volunteering. Interestingly, however, higher education levels had no effect on the number of hours people volunteered per year. In terms of the combined influence of education and social networks on volunteering, how much people volunteer is influenced by bonding aspects over time only in the context of low levels of education. In this context, as networks become more geographically proximal and older adults are in more frequent contact with their networks, they are more likely to volunteer at higher levels. So lacking in one resource (education) is substituted for, and compensated by, the strength inherent in the other (social networks). Such findings make visible the potential impact of a social resource.

Future studies will need to better specify the direction of the links between social network change and volunteerism. It could be that volunteering initiated this study’s detected changes in network characteristics. If so, it may be that the act of volunteerism promotes change in social networks that incur both bridging and bonding tendencies rather than the reverse. Regardless, social network change is clearly associated with volunteerism, and we expect that it is most likely bi-directional, that is, both are causing changes in the other.

This study characterized social networks in terms of bridging and bonding aspects that can change over time. This approach positions networks as an important resource for integration, embeddedness, and ultimately continuous and long lasting engagement in various social roles. As such, policy makers and program planners should not view pathways to volunteerism simplistically. The ways social networks change have significant implications for the roles older adults play in society.

Featured image credit: Hands in old age. CC0 via Pixabay.

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