Many of today’s older adults are re-inventing how they become or remain engaged with work, volunteer activities, education and other learning activities, and caregiving for family members and friends. While the possibilities for positive aging are expanding, fundamental questions remain about how the new ways of engagement might affect the mental and physical health of older people.
A team of social scientists under the leadership of Jacquelyn James at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College has been focusing on this question in a research initiative called “Engaged as We Age.” The team has developed a new paradigm for conceptualizing the roles of older adults, and is in the process of creating a new measurement tool to assess the level of engagement of older adults. This tool is urgently needed in order to study the impact of engagement on various dimensions of quality of life.
The Sloan Center researchers have published two issues briefs so far on the project. The first brief1, published in 2010, laid out the conceptual framework of the Engaged as We Age paradigm. The authors reviewed the literature on previous paradigms of aging, particularly the concepts of “successful aging” and “productive aging.” These models were found to have strengths, but also limitations; they imply that there is a “best way” to age well, and imply that people who develop a debilitating disease are “unsuccessful.” A new model of aging is needed that will expand the concepts of successful and productive aging to include dimensions of involvement and well-being. Such a model could also help to counter the negative perceptions of aging prevalent in our culture.
The Engaged as We Age paradigm focuses on engagement by older adults in four specific areas of activity: work, volunteering, caregiving, and education or lifelong learning. In this model, a distinction is made between involvement (participation in an activity) and engagement (the quality of one’s connection to an activity or role or the act of attaching psychological importance to an activity or role). One can be involved in paid work, volunteering, caregiving, or educational pursuits and even very committed to one of these activities without being fully engaged in it.
In an issue brief2 released earlier this year, the researchers presented the findings of the Life & Times in an Aging Society Study which examines the activities and engagement of over 800 adults in three age groups: those under 50, ages 50 to 64, and 65 and over. The participants were questioned about their involvement it paid employment, volunteering, caregiving, and education and training. Analyses showed that 60 percent of respondents were involved in paid employment, 30 percent in volunteering, 40 percent in some type of education or training, and 30 percent in caregiving. The researchers then asked participants to respond to a set of questions using their new measure of engagement, which is a modification of the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale. The instrument measures whether participants were engaged, rather than just involved, in these activities—if they were enthusiastic about them, dedicated to them and whether they could get completely absorbed in them as opposed to merely going through the motions. In three out of four categories—paid work, volunteering and education—the study found that participants over 50 were, on average, more engaged in each of these activities than were those under 50.
The relationship between involvement, engagement and well-being was also explored. Differences in well-being emerged when the researchers analyzed the degree to which respondents who were involved in an activity were also engaged by it. Across all four categories of activity and all three age groups, respondents with the highest well-being scores were moderately or highly engaged. Those with the lowest well-being scores were not much engaged by an activity.
Currently, the research team is refining the Engaged as We Age measure in preparation for a larger study. They hope to provide further evidence that engagement, rather than just involvement, offers an opportunity for older adults, and for the entire community, to move beyond the idea of old age as a time of “rolelessness.” By pointing to the psychological benefits of high levels of engagement with various activities, they hope to open new paths through which older adults will be able to continue to make important contributions to society, through true engagement in activities such as extended paid work, volunteerism and civic engagement, education and training, and caregiving.
1James, J. B., Besen, E., Matz-Costa, C., & Pitt-Catsouphes, M. (2010). Engaged as we age: The end of retirement as we know it. (Issue Brief No. 24). Chestnut Hill, MA: Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Retrieved from http://agingandwork.bc.edu/documents/IB24_EngagedAsWeAge.pdf
2James, J. B., Besen, E., Matz-Costa, C., & Pitt-Catsouphes, M. (2012). Just do it?… maybe not! Insights on activity in later life from the Life & Times In An Aging Society Study. Chestnut Hill, MA: Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. Retrieved from http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/agingandwork/pdf/publications/EAWA_JustDoIt.pdf