An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2015

Productivity & Engagement in an Aging America: The Role of Volunteerism

Dawn C. Carr, Linda P. Fried, and John Wallis Rowe
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Volunteering in late life is associated with health benefits such as reduced risk of hypertension, improved self-related health and well-being, delayed physical disability, enhanced cognition, and lower mortality. Although the mechanisms of these correlations are not clear, increases in physical activity, cognitive engagement, and social interactions likely play contributing roles. Volunteers are typically thought to represent a select group, often possessing higher levels of education and income, good health, and strong social networks. However, group evidence indicates that there are many members of groups of lower socioeconomic status (SES), including elderly adults, who serve their communities on a regular basis and in high-priority programs. We propose that the impact of volunteering in an aging population be recognized and invested into, and that effective programs harness social capital of older adults to address critical societal needs and also improve the well-being of older adults. While members of low-SES groups are less likely to volunteer, they exhibit disproportionately great benefits. The Experience Corps represents a model of an effective volunteerism program, in which elders work with young schoolchildren. Existing federal initiatives, including the Foster Grandparent Program and Senior Companion Program – which target low-income elders – have had low participation with long waiting lists. Given the proven benefits and relatively low proportion of older persons who volunteer, enhancement of elder volunteerism presents a significant opportunity for health promotion and deserves consideration as a national public health priority.

DAWN C. CARR is a Social Science Research Associate at Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University. She edited Gerontology in the Era of the Third Age: Implications and Next Steps (with Kathrin Komp, 2011); has contributed articles to such journals as Activities, Adaptation and Aging, The Gerontologist, and Journal of Health and Human Services Administration; and serves on the editorial board of The Gerontologist.

LINDA P. FRIED is Dean of the Mailman School of Public Health, Senior Vice President of the Columbia University Medical Center, the DeLamar Professor of Public Health, and Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at Columbia University. She is the designer and cofounder of Experience Corps, and also founded the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health. She serves on the editorial boards of The Journals of Gerontology: Biological Sciences & Medical Sciences and Aging.

JOHN W. ROWE, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2005, is Professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Chair of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society. He is the author of Successful Aging (with Robert L. Kahn, 1998) and was the Chair of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies project the Future Health Care Workforce for Older Americans, which authored the report Retooling for an Aging America: Building the Health Care Workforce (2008).

Recent and expected future increases in life expectancy and the increasing proportion of our population that will be elderly has stimulated substantial research into the factors that promote well-being and health in late life. Early research on aging was concerned primarily with understanding the average or usual physiologic and psychological changes associated with aging, particularly in the context of inevitable loss and decline as part of senescence. The first White House Conference on Aging in 1961, however, reoriented gerontological research to provide information that facilitates good societal and individual choices associated with positive aging outcomes.1 More than twenty-five years later, John Rowe and gerontologist Robert Kahn–working as part of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society–sought to advance discussions about successful aging to enhance our understanding of the mechanisms involved.2 They proposed that successful aging should reflect the distinction between two non-pathologic forms of aging–usual and successful–and called for research investigating the factors underlying the heterogeneity among older people. Following a decade of systematic studies in this area, the MacArthur Network laid out three critical factors to successful aging: 1) avoidance of disease and disability; 2) maintenance of high cognitive and physical function; and 3) engagement with life.3 . . .

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  • 1Robert J. Havighurst, “Successful Aging,” The Gerontologist 1 (1) (1961): 8–13, doi:10.1093/ geront/1.1.8.
  • 2John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn, “Human Aging: Usual and Successful,” Science 237 (4811) (1987): 143–149, doi:10.1126/science.3299702.
  • 3Robert L. Kahn, “Guest Editorial on ‘Successful Aging and Well-Being: Self-Rated Compared with Rowe and Kahn,’” The Gerontologist 42 (6) (2002): 725–726, doi:10.1093/geront/42.6.725; and John W. Rowe, “The New Gerontology,” Science 278 (5337) (1997): 367–375, doi:10.1126/ science.278.5337.367