Volunteering in Later Life: Rewarding or Stressful?
Volunteering for a good cause at any stage of life is touted as a positive influence on wellbeing, and I generally agree. When you think of the many dimensions of wellness, volunteering might enhance any of them. For instance, volunteering might keep us physically, socially, or intellectually active. It often provides a spiritual purpose and serves as a vocation for those no longer in the formal workforce. Volunteering can foster emotions such as happiness, empathy, and gratitude, and it can provide structure to our lives.
Because of this multitude of benefits, we don't often consider whether there might be any downsides to volunteering. That's why I was interested in a study recently published in The Gerontologist that explored the rewards and stressors of volunteering in later life.
Conducted by a group of researchers from the west and east coasts, the team focused on a program called Experience Corps Baltimore. Described as a "high-intensity, intergenerational civic engagement activity," the program enlists older people to serve as mentors and tutors in elementary schools.
The research team conducted 8 focus groups with 46 volunteers in the program, asking them to reflect on what was rewarding about the volunteer position as well as what was stressful. The volunteers reported stressors and rewards in five areas:
- Intergenerational relationships: While dealing with children's behavioral problems was challenging, seeing kids improve and forming a special bond with them was rewarding.
- External factors: Poor parenting and witnessing children dealing with difficult circumstances were stressful.
- Interpersonal relationships: Working with teachers could be rewarding or stressful depending on the nature of the relationship and the quality of communication.
- Personal factors: Many volunteers enjoyed participating in the program, felt a sense of achievement, and liked being more active.
- Structural factors: It was rewarding to be part of a program that was well-structured and organized.
Overall, the volunteers felt that the rewards of participating in Experience Corps Baltimore balanced out the stressors they also experienced. This is good news, considering that not only do we want older adults to enjoy volunteering - we also need them to keep volunteering! Older Americans possess invaluable skills and talents that, when shared, make the world a better place. Let's keep evaluating the volunteer experiences of our elders to ensure that volunteering continues to bring them joy and satisfaction.
Varma, V. R., Carlson, M. C., Parisi, J. M., Tanner, E. K., McGill, S., Fried, L. P., Song, L. H., & Gruenewald, T. L. (2014). Experience Corps Baltimore: Exploring the stressors and rewards of high-intensity civic engagement. The Gerontologist, Advance Access. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnu011