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Older Volunteers with Physical Limitations Reap Health Benefits


It appears that older adults who have some physical limitations, such as difficulty preparing meals or cleaning house, can reap health benefits when they volunteer to help others. Although older adults with limitations have a greater risk of dying, those who volunteer may challenge this risk.

Older volunteers with physical challenges reap benefits

A new study from investigators at Arizona State University found that among older adults, “as functional limitations increase the risk of dying increases, but not among those who volunteered.” That’s the finding of Morris Okun, professor of psychology, who, along with co-authors from the University of California-Irvine (UC-I) and Portland State University, evaluated whether the effect of volunteering was greater on older adults with or without functional limitations.

The team analyzed data from a longitudinal study conducted by one of the team’s authors, Karen Rook of UC-I, which included a representative sample of 916 non-institutionalized adults age 65 years and older living in the United States. Mortality data were drawn six years later from the National Death Index.

The team focused on physical, not cognitive limitations, such as not being able to drive or carry groceries. An analysis of volunteering, physical limitations, and mortality revealed that “people with functional limitations are benefitting more from volunteering in terms of longevity than the people who are free of functional limitations,” Okun stated.

A paradox, however, is that people who have physical limitations, while having the most to gain from volunteering, are also less likely to do so.

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Okun noted that there is “something unique” that happens regarding people with functional limitations and volunteering that has an impact on mortality. Although the authors did not pinpoint the mechanism for this impact, Okun ventured a suggestion.

He noted that individuals who are beginning to experience physical challenges are the type who also experience a declining sense of usefulness. “We know that a sense of usefulness is a predictor of mortality in older people. If we give older people with functional limitations a way to restore their sense of usefulness, then we may be able to compensate for, or offset, the effect of functional limitations on mortality.”

An apparently effective way to offset a sense of uselessness is to volunteer. Given the rapidly aging population, the accompanying increase in physical limitations, and the need for more assistance for older adults, volunteering could be an effective way to address this challenge.

A recent study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis reported that the rates of volunteering do not decline significantly until the middle of the seventh decade, and that older volunteers commit more hours of service than do their younger peers.

Okun projects that Baby Boomers are “not going to be envelope lickers. They are looking for something more rewarding than that. We need to think about meaningful ways to engage them as part of the volunteer labor force.” And when we do, older adults who have physical limitations can hope to reap health benefits that can improve their quality of life and longevity.

Arizona State University press release
Morrow-Howell N. Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci 2010 Jul; 65(4): 461-69