Research | Baycrest


Scientific Background of the BRAVO Project

Although the numbers of people who volunteer decline from middle to older adulthood, Canadians over the age of 65 spend considerably more time volunteering than do their younger counterparts. Older adults who volunteer may be unwittingly doing themselves good. Dr. Nicole Anderson, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Toronto and a Senior Scientist at the Rotman Research Unit at Baycrest, is studying how volunteering in our later years may protect brain health. “While everyone knows that volunteering is a ‘feel good’ activity, there is good reason to believe that the benefits of volunteering may be much more profound,” says Dr. Anderson.

“BRAVO is motivated by evidence that physical, cognitive, and social activity in older adults helps to maintain cognitive function and decrease dementia risk, as well as by research showing that the more complex your occupation is – physically, cognitively, or socially – the less likely you are to develop dementia,” says Dr. Anderson. “Volunteering is an occupation – an activity that occupies you – and one that adds activity in these three domains, to varying degrees depending on volunteer placement. Volunteering should therefore help to maintain brain health.”

A number of large-scaled longitudinal studies have already examined the benefits of volunteering among older adults. They have found that older adults who volunteer, compared to their non-volunteering peers, report themselves to be in better physical and mental health, and moreover, that the longer they continue to volunteer, the better they report their physical and mental functioning to be. “The problem with these studies, however, is that they rely entirely on self-report. In that sense, they do not add a lot to the already accepted notion that volunteering helps people feel good”, says Dr. Anderson. There is an ongoing study in the U.S. called Experience Corps, that is the first study to show objective benefits of volunteering. In that study, older adults assigned to volunteer in elementary schools showed improvements on tests of memory and attention over their counterparts who were assigned to a waitlist control group that did not do volunteer work.

BRAVO includes objective and qualitative (interview) measures of seniors’ physical, cognitive, and social functioning that are administered before participants start to volunteer, and after 6 and 12 months of volunteering. The team has recruited more than 100 volunteers aged 55 and older into the BRAVO study over the next two years. Changes in functioning and experience over time will be ascertained in relation to the number of hours participants volunteer and to the complexity of their volunteer placements. “We are applying the same approach to volunteer positions that the Canadian and U.S. governments use to rate the physical, cognitive, and social complexity of paid occupations, and are doing this in collaboration with people from the federal Department of Human Resources and Skills Development,” says Dr. Anderson. “Ultimately, we will have a web-based database of healthcare volunteer positions and their complexity values which we will link to income data so that organizations can determine the economic value of their volunteers.

A key unique feature of the BRAVO project is that it was developed and is being run in partnership with older volunteers. “A team of 30 leadership volunteers – individuals aged 55 and older from various professional backgrounds – is involved in all aspects of the project. They are testing the participants, doing the qualitative interviews, promoting and recruiting for BRAVO, and assessing the complexity of volunteer placements,” says Dr. Anderson. “Everyone recognizes that organizations will need to create innovative, challenging volunteer roles to meet the skills and expertise of the Baby Boomer generation. We are doing that with BRAVO.”