As older adults enter senior living, they may find themselves no longer needing to perform meaningful activities that perhaps once gave them feelings of usefulness, whether those are working, maintaining a household, or other endeavors. Valued and meaningful activities have been shown to increase older adults’ sense of usefulness and purpose, which research has shown to protect against depressive symptoms. One source of meaningful activities for older adults that has broader benefits in the community is volunteering. A recent study looks at the relationship between volunteering and feelings of usefulness for residents of Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs).
The 127 participants in this study were residents of a CCRC who lived in either independent or assisted living. The participants had an average age of 88, and 77 percent were women. They were asked about what types of volunteer work they did outside and within their CCRC. Of the total participants, 47 percent volunteered in some capacity. Of those who volunteered, only a third volunteered outside the CCRC setting.
The participants were then asked about how frequently they felt useful. Overall, 32 percent of participants reported rarely or never feeling useful. This is a good deal higher than 6 percent of older adults between 70 and 79 who reported rarely or never feeling useful when the same question was used in the MacArthur Study of Successful Aging. The authors suggest that perhaps the younger group in the MacArthur study had fewer retirees. They also note that due to the many services they have provided for them, CCRC residents have fewer responsibilities, such as cooking or cleaning chores, that can lead to feelings of usefulness. Participants were also asked about what depressive symptoms they had experienced in the past two weeks, and 9 percent scored high enough to need further evaluation for clinical depression.
In their analysis, the researchers looked at what aspects of CCRC residents were associated with a higher likelihood of volunteering. Here, they found that participants who were younger, with fewer chronic illnesses, and with greater levels of physical activity were more likely to volunteer.
The researchers then looked at whether volunteering or other activities that they collected data on were associated with the CCRC residents’ feelings of usefulness. Here, they found that the participants who volunteered had higher feelings of usefulness than those who did not; they also found that higher levels of physical activity were associated with greater feelings of usefulness.
The researchers did not find statistically significant associations between the influence of volunteering and feelings of usefulness and the symptoms of depression. The number of participants in this study was likely too small and had too small a portion of participants with clinically significant symptoms of depression to find a statistically significant relationship.
When the researchers examined the contribution of demographic factors on the variation in symptoms of depression among participants, they found that age, fear of falling, pain, physical activity, and physical resilience accounted for 31 percent of the observed variation. Residents who were younger, more fearful of falling, less physically active, and less physically resilient had more depressive symptoms.
This study shows that volunteering can have a positive impact on feelings of usefulness for older adults in a senior living setting. This suggests that senior living communities should make efforts to provide volunteering opportunities of interest to their residents. Moreover, other research has found that a sense of usefulness is associated with quality of life and a number of positive health outcomes, which suggests that it may be most beneficial to offer volunteering opportunities with the most promise for promoting a sense of usefulness. The study’s findings on the positive impact of usefulness also suggest that residents in senior living and other older adults could also benefit from other initiatives that promote a sense of usefulness in areas other than volunteering.
Klinedinst NJ and Resnick B. Volunteering and depressive symptoms among residents in a Continuing Care Retirement Community. Journal of Gerontological Social Work (2014); 57: 52–71.