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National Volunteer Month: a reading list

On 20 April 1974, President Richard M. Nixon declared National Volunteer Week, to honor those Americans whose unpaid “efforts most frequently touch the lives of the poor, the young, the aged and the sick, but in the process the lives of all men and women are made richer.” Since that time, this commemoration has been extended to a full month to recognize the nearly one-in-four Americans, numbering nearly 63 million, who offer their time, energy, and skills to their communities. Volunteer activities are far-ranging and encompass activities like tutoring school children, beautifying run-down neighborhoods and littered highways, planting community gardens, giving tours of historical sites, ringing up purchases at a hospital gift shop, delivering meals to homebound older adults, performing music for nursing home residents, or offering one’s professional, managerial, or organizational skills to non-profit organizations.

While it might appear that older adults are the recipients of volunteer labor, they actually play a large and vital role in the volunteer work force. A recent study by the Corporation for National Community and Service documented that more than 21 million adults aged 55 and older contributed more than 3 billion hours of volunteer service to their communities in 2015, with these contributions valued at $77 billion.

Each April, National Volunteer Month provides a time to celebrate the contributions of volunteers young and old, raise awareness of the personal and societal benefits of volunteering, increase public support for this vast and often invisible unpaid workforce, and educate potential volunteers about the opportunities available to them. In honor of the 21 million older adult volunteers, we have created a reading list of articles from Gerontological Society of America journals that reveal new scientific insights into the benefits of volunteering for older adults and the people and communities they help.

“Does Becoming a Volunteer Attenuate Loneliness among Recently Widowed Older Adults?” by Carr et al.

The authors explore whether becoming a volunteer protects against older widows’ and widowers’ loneliness. Using data from the 2006-2014 waves of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), they find that widowed persons have significantly higher levels of loneliness than their married counterparts, yet volunteering 2+ hours a week attenuates loneliness to the point where widowed volunteers fare just as well as their married counterparts. Volunteering less frequently does not buffer against the strains of widowhood, however. The loss of a spouse is so profound and daily life changes so dramatic that more intense levels of social engagement may be necessary to protect against older widowed persons’ feelings of loneliness.

“The Relation of Volunteering and Subsequent Changes in Physical Disability in Older Adults” by Carr, Kail and Rowe (2018).

This study examines whether becoming a volunteer is linked with functional limitations and whether these effects are conditional on whether one volunteered more or less than two hours per week. Using data from Health and Retirement Survey (HRS), they find that starting a new volunteer role slows the progression of disability, at both high and low intensity volunteering levels for women, yet these benefits accrue for men only at the higher level of volunteering frequency. Low intensity volunteering may be less protective to men than women because men tend to be more physically active, such that adding an incremental set of volunteering tasks may not deliver substantial health benefits.

“Extracurricular Involvement in High School and Later-Life Participation in Voluntary Associations” by Greenfield and Moorman (2018).

Using more than 50 years of data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS), the authors examine whether the number of extracurricular activities one participated in during high school is linked with subsequent participation in voluntary associations like religious groups, unions, sports teams, or professional organizations. Participation in voluntary associations over the life course is consistently higher among those with greater extracurricular participation in high school. This study reveals clear patterns of continuity and change, where those who were “joiners” in high school continued this behavior throughout their lives although later-life transitions like retirement and the onset of physical health problems may discourage people from such engagement in later life.

“Longitudinal Associations between Formal Volunteering and Cognitive Functioning” by Proulx et al. (2018).

Using nine waves of data from the Health and Retirement Study, the authors find that formal volunteering is linked with higher levels of cognitive functioning over time, especially for working memory and processing. The positive impact of formal volunteering on memory weakened over time, yet the impact on working memory and processing intensified over time. The authors conclude that formal volunteering may enhance cognitive functioning by providing opportunities to learn or engage in new tasks, and to remain physically and socially active.

“Health Benefits Associated With Three Helping Behaviors: Evidence for Incident Cardiovascular Disease” by Burr et al. (2018)

Does volunteering affect specific disease outcomes? This study uses ten years of data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to explore the impact on cardiovascular disease (CVD) of three helping behaviors: formal volunteering, informal helping, and caregiving for a parent or spouse. Although caregiving was not linked to CVD risk, volunteering and providing informal help were linked with reduced risk of heart disease. Helping may enhance one’s health, especially if these prosocial behaviors are not particularly stressful or physically strenuous.

“Volunteering in the Community: Potential Benefits for Cognitive Aging” by Guiney et al. (2018).

This study reviewed 15 articles evaluating the association between volunteering and cognitive functioning. The authors found that volunteering has modest benefits for global cognitive functioning as well as some specific indicators such as attentional control, task switching, and both verbal and visual memory, with the magnitude of these associations varying based on whether the study used longitudinal versus cross-sectional data. They also delineated potential explanatory mechanisms, whereby volunteering promotes cognitive, social, and physical activity which provide neurological and mental health benefits that ultimately enhance cognitive functioning.

Featured image credit: “bonding” by rawpixel. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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