Productivity and Engagement in an Aging America: The Role of Volunteerism
Volunteering in late life is associated with health benefits such as reduced risk of hypertension, improved self-related health and well-being, delayed physical disability, enhanced cognition, and lower mortality. Although the mechanisms of these correlations are not clear, increases in physical activity, cognitive engagement, and social interactions likely play contributing roles. Volunteers are typically thought to represent a select group, often possessing higher levels of education and income, good health, and strong social networks. However, group evidence indicates that there are many members of groups of lower socioeconomic status (SES), including elderly adults, who serve their communities on a regular basis and in high-priority programs. We propose that the impact of volunteering in an aging population be recognized and invested into, and that effective programs harness social capital of older adults to address critical societal needs and also improve the well-being of older adults. While members of low-SES groups are less likely to volunteer, they exhibit disproportionately great benefits. The Experience Corps represents a model of an effective volunteerism program, in which elders work with young schoolchildren. Existing federal initiatives, in cluding the Foster Grandparent Program and Senior Companion Program – which target low-income elders – have had low participation with long waiting lists. Given the proven benefits and relatively low proportion of older persons who volunteer, enhancement of elder volunteerism presents a significant opportunity for health promotion and deserves consideration as a national public health priority.
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