Older Adults’ Perceptions of Volunteering Improve When They Try It

Volunteering is an activity that seems to have as many benefits for the person doing it as for the people it’s intended to help. This seems to be true starting relatively early in life, with young adults who volunteer more having a greater sense of purpose.

However, volunteering has especially been considered as a way of potentially boosting quality of life for older adults. Among older adults, volunteering is associated with benefits ranging from slower cognitive aging to more frequent use of available health services. A few years ago, I similarly wrote about a study finding that helping others by spending money on them apparently lowers older adults’ blood pressure.

All of which leads to the question: if dedicating time to helping other people is so good for older adults, why don’t older adults volunteer more often?

A recent study by researchers in Australia investigated this question by looking at older adults’ perceptions of volunteering. Negative perceptions about volunteering are sometimes cited as a reason that older adults don’t volunteer more often, so the researchers wanted to see if actually giving people volunteer experience would change those perceptions.

In the study, 445 adults over the age of 60 were divided into two groups, one of which was asked to try volunteer activities and the other of which was simply asked to continue with life as normal.

It turned out that after six months of trial volunteering, participants perceptions’ of volunteering had significantly improved. These more positive perceptions were associated with factors like acquiring new skills and becoming more socially connected. In other words, the participants apparently revised their view of volunteer activities as they experienced firsthand those activities’ benefits.

One takeaway is that for all our talk about the advantages of volunteering, the best proof is for people just to try volunteering and see if it adds something to their lives. This study looked specifically at older adults engaged in volunteer activities, but the results potentially apply to all of us. Given the positive mental health outcomes associated with volunteering, why not give it a shot? If you don’t enjoy it you can just stop, but if you’re like the people in the study, you might find you get more out of it than you expected!