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.”
Nicole D. Anderson, PhD, CPsych
Senior Scientist, Kunin-Lunenfeld Applied Research Unit, Baycrest
Associate Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology, University of Toronto
Recent research has identified three key lifestyle factors that reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in old age: Individuals who are physical active, cognitively active, and socially active have a 29-39% lower risk of developing dementia than do older adults who are physically, cognitively, or socially sedentary (Karp et al., 2006). I will review the existing literature relevant to the hypothesis that volunteering is an activity that adds physical, cognitive, and social activity to older adults’ lives, and as such helps to maintain their functioning, and then will describe a new, collaborative research project that we are conducting to test this hypothesis. Two key features of the project that will be emphasized are 1) our inclusion of our target population as core members of the research team (i.e., older volunteers are helping to lead and run every aspect of the research project), and 2) our perspective that the occupational complexity of volunteer activities will predict the extent to which functioning is maintained. The potential implications of research on the health benefits of volunteering for policy and volunteer management will be discussed.
Engaging today’s volunteer market in our organizations can be a challenge. This workshop will demonstrate how Volunteer Services of Baycrest and the Rotman Research Institute, Kunin-Lunenfeld Applied Research Unit (KLARU), partnered to create BRAVO (Baycrest Research About Volunteering Among Older Adults), by engaging today’s volunteers in an exciting leadership role.
BRAVO is a research project conducted by the Kunin-Lunenfeld Applied Research Unit (KLARU) and the Volunteer Services Department which will enhance the quality of life for both volunteers and Baycrest clients, and will strengthen the role of volunteerism at Baycrest. This project has engaged over twenty retired professional leadership volunteers to work with six scientists from various disciplines to bring BRAVO to fulfillment.
Nicole D. Anderson1,2, Syrelle Bernstein3, Thecla Damianakis4, Deirdre Dawson1,5, Laura Wagner1,6, Edeltraut Kröger7, Malcolm Binns8,9, Eilon Caspi1, Suzanne Cook1, and the BRAVO Team
We propose that volunteering is an occupation that increases physical, cognitive, and social activity and therefore protects against cognitive decline and dementia in older adults. Prior research is limited because: it relies primarily on self-report measures, only one study has included cognitive measures, there are no qualitative data, and no studies have linked health benefits to the demands of the volunteer activities. To address these gaps, we are studying the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial benefits of formal volunteering among 200 seniors aged 55+, using subjective, objective, and qualitative measures, and are relating those benefits both to the occupational complexity of the volunteers’ placements as well as to socio-demographic and health variables. Participants are assessed prior to volunteering, and after six and twelve months of volunteering. At this conference, we will report the results of approximately 40 people tested to date. Our primary hypothesis is that the acquisition of new motivations for volunteering and gains in physical, cognitive, and psychosocial functioning will be related to the occupational complexity of the volunteers’ placements, wherein higher physical, cognitive, or social demands will be associated with improved self-reported functioning of any type, whereas there will be a match between demand type and objective functional gains.
Suzanne L. Cook1, Thecla Damianakis1,2, Nicole Anderson1,3, Syrelle Bernstein4 Eilon Caspi1 and the BRAVO Team4
Today, older adult volunteers expect their skills to be valued, and effectively utilized in non-profit organizations. Understanding their motivations for volunteering and the benefits they anticipate can aid in ensuring an overall positive experience between volunteers, staff, administrators and service uses and enhance volunteer retention.
This paper discusses the initial qualitative findings from a retrospective mixed methods study, Baycrest Research about Volunteering among Older Adults (BRAVO). The overall purpose of BRAVO is to investigate how volunteer motivations and objective, subjective and qualitative measures of the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial benefits of volunteering among adults aged 55+ are influenced by volunteer placement factors, including the specific physical, cognitive, and psychosocial demands of the volunteer placement, the number of volunteering hours, socio-demographic factors and health factors.
Ten BRAVO leadership volunteers, age 55 plus, were recruited and trained in qualitative interviewing methodology. Volunteer interviewers conducted 28 semi-structured interviews, exploring participants’ volunteer motivations and anticipated physical, cognitive and psychosocial benefits of volunteering. Participants will be interviewed again at 6 and 12 months.
In this paper, we report on older adult’s volunteer motivations and their perspectives on the physical, cognitive and psychosocial benefits they expected to gain from volunteering at Baycrest, from baseline interviews conducted prior to volunteering.
Initial results show older adult volunteers anticipated several health benefits of volunteering such as: being cognitively stimulated by learning new things and keeping their ‘brains active’; physical benefits of increased energy; and a feeling of being civically engaged in their communities.
Previous research indicates that formal volunteering is associated with enhanced life satisfaction, higher self-esteem, lower rates of depression, and lower morbidity and mortality (Li & Ferraro, 2005; Lum & Lightfoot, 2005; Morrow-Howell et al., 2003; Musick & Wilson, 2003; Piliavin & Siegl, 2007; Thoits & Hewitt, 2001). Recent research on this topic has determined that three critical lifestyle factors significantly reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in old age: being physical active (Buchman et al., 2008; Larson et al., 2006; Middleton et al., 2008), cognitively active (Kröger et al., 2008; Schooler & Mulatu, 2001; Verghese et al., 2003), and socially active (Krueger et al., 2009; Seidler et al., 2003; Wang et al., 2002).
The Experience Corps® study is the only research that has explored the effect of volunteering on cognitive functioning in addition to physical and social functioning (Carlson et al., 2008; Fried et al., 2004; Glass et al., 2004; Tan et al., 2006). In a randomized trial, the Experience Corps® program for older volunteers was associated with increased physical activity, strength, social support and cognitive activity, and walking speed decreased significantly less in study participants compared with controls after 4 to 8 months (Fried et al., 2004). Several population-based studies have examined specific physical or psychosocial outcomes in different waves over time and related those to whether or not people reported having volunteered in the previous year (Harris & Thoresen, 2005; Li & Ferraro, 2005; Luoh & Herzog, 2002; Lum & Lightfoot, 2005; Morrow-Howell et al., 2003; Musick & Wilson, 2003; Oman et al., 1999; Piliavin & Siegl, 2007; Thoits & Hewitt, 2001; Van Willigen, 2000). However, the demands of volunteer roles have not been previously investigated and no research to-date has explored how the specific demands of the activities in the volunteer roles affect functional outcomes (Gottlieb & Gillespie, 2008).
More research on the health benefits of volunteering is required. As volunteering appears to provide protective health benefits, we need to better understand the physiological and cognitive mechanisms of volunteering. The recent findings on the protective benefits of volunteering and the increased reserve against the risk of dementia have great implications for patients and their families, as well as for the healthcare system, with the anticipated rising healthcare costs from our aging population in Canada (Brookmeyer et al., 1998).
This panel presents three papers on Canadian research that asks, “What are the benefits of formal volunteering for older adults?” The first paper by Damianakis, Cook and Capsi reports older volunteers’ perspectives on the cognitive, physical and psychosocial benefits that they believe they will gain from volunteering through interviews conducted with 26 participants. The second paper by Anderson et al., reports whether gains in physical, cognitive, and psychosocial functioning increase with the occupational complexity of the volunteer role. The third paper by Gottlieb and Maitland reports positive findings from two waves of a three-wave, two-year study of older adult volunteers in terms of physical, cognitive and social functioning.
The results from these studies have implications for non-profit organizations in their current use of volunteer management models to adapt existing volunteer roles to better value and maximize older adults’ skills, knowledge and experience.
Buchman, A. S., Wilson, R. S., & Bennett, D. A. (2008). Total daily activity is associated with cognition in older persons. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 16, 697-701.
Carlson, M. C., Saczynski, J. S., Rebok, G. W., Seeman, T., Glass, T. A., McGill, S., Tielsch, J., Frick, K. D., Hill, J., & Fried, L. P. (2008). Exploring the effects of an “everyday” activity program on executive function and memory in older adults: Experience Corps®. The Gerontologist, 48, 793-801.
Fried, L., Carlson, M. C., Freedman, M., Frick, K. D., Glass, T. A., Hill, J., McGill, S., Rebok, G. W., Seeman, T., Tielsch, J., Wasik, B. A., & Zeger, S. (2004). A social model for health promotion for an aging population: Initial evidence on the Experience Corps model. Journal of Urban Health, 81, 64-78.
Glass, T. A., Freedman, M., Carlson, M. C., Hill, J., Frick, K. D., Ialongo, N., McGill, S., Rebok, G. W., Seeman, T., Tielsch, J. M., Wasik, B. A., Zeger, S., & Fried, L. P. (2004). Experience Corps: Design of an intergenerational program to boost social capital and promote the health of an aging society. Journal of Urban Health, 81, 94-105.
Gottlieb, B. H., & Gillespie, A. A. (2008). Volunteerism, health, and civic engagement among older adults. Canadian Journal on Aging, 27, 399-406. Harris, A. H. S., & Thoresen, C. E. (2005). Volunteering is associated with delayed mortality in older people: Analysis of the longitudinal study of aging. Journal of Health Psychology, 10, 739-752.
Kröger, E., Andel, R., Lindsay, J., Benounissa, Z., Verreault, R., & Laurin, D. (2008). Is complexity of work associated with risk of dementia? The Canadian Study of Health and Aging. American Journal of Epidemiology, 167, 820-830.
Krueger, K. R., Wilson, R. S., Kamenetsky, J. M., Barnes, L. L., Bienias, J. L., & Bennett, D. A. (2009). Social engagement and cognitive function in old age. Experimental Aging Research, 35, 45-60.
Larson, E. B., Wang, L., Bowen, J. D., McCormick, W. C., Teri, L., Crane, P., & Kukull, W. (2006). Exercise is associated with reduced risk for incident dementia among persons 65 years of age and older. Annals of Internal Medicine, 144, 73-81. Li, Y., & Ferraro, K. F. (2005). Volunteering and depression in later life: Social benefit or selection processes? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 46, 68-84. Luoh, M.-C., & Herzog, A. R. (2002). Individual consequences of volunteer and paid work in old age: Health and mortality. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43, 490-509.
Lum, T. Y., & Lightfoot, E. (2005). The effects of volunteering on the physical and mental health of older people. Research on Aging, 27, 31-55.
Morrow-Howell, N., Hinterlong, J., Rozario, P. A., & Tang, F. (2003). Effects of volunteering on the well-being of older adults. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 58B, S137-S145.
Musick, M. A., & Wilson, J., (2003). Volunteering and depression: The role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Social Sciences & Medicine, 56, 259-269.
Oman, D., Thoresen, C. E., & McMahon, K. (1999). Volunteerism and mortality among the community-dwelling elderly. Journal of Health Psychology, 4, 301-316. Piliavin, J. A., & Siegl, E. (2007). Health benefits of volunteering in the Wisconsin longitudinal study. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 48, 450-464. Schooler, C., & Mulatu, M. S. (2001). The reciprocal effects of leisure time activities and intellectual functioning in older people: A longitudinal analysis. Psychology & Aging, 16, 466-482.
Seidler, A., Bernhardt, T., Nienhaus, A., & Frölich, L. (2003). Association between the psychosocial network and dementia: A case-control study. Journal of Psychiatry Research, 37, 89-98.
Tan, E. J., Xue, Q.-L., Li, T., Carlson, M. C., & Fried, L. P. (2006). Volunteering: A physical activity intervention for older adults : The Experience Corps® program in Baltimore. Journal of Urban Health, 83, 954-969. Thoits, P. A., & Hewitt, L. N. (2001). Volunteering work and well-being. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42, 115-131.
Van Willigen, M. (2000). Differential benefits of volunteering across the life course. Journal of Gerontology: Social Science, 55B, S308-S318.
Verghese, J., Lipton, R. B., Katz, M. J., Hall, C. B., Derby, C. A., Kuslansky, G., Ambrose, A. F., Sliwinski, M., Buschke, H. (2003). Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly. New England Journal of Medicine, 348, 2508-2516.
Wang, H. X., Karp, A., Winblad, B., & Fratiglioni, L. (2002). Late-life engagement in social and leisure activities is associated with a decreased risk of dementia: A longitudinal study from the Kungsholmen project. American Journal of Epidemiology, 155, 1081-1087.
Suzanne L. Cook, Syrelle Bernstein, Thecla Damianakis, Nicole D. Anderson and the BRAVO Team
Academic-practitioner collaborations can contribute to conceptual, theoretical, empirical and practical knowledge (Kernaghan, 2009). A research-practice collaborative endeavour creates relevant and meaningful research that can enhance practice knowledge by improving volunteer management (Cascio, 2008; Hess & Mullen, 1995). Hess and Mullen (1995) identify five collaboration considerations: relational, epistemological or philosophical, organizational, political, and ethical. For the BRAVO team, both relational and organizational considerations have been important for team development, the research process, the learnings, and volunteer management (Cascio, 2008; Phelan, Harrington & Mercer, 2004).
The Baycrest Research About Volunteering in Older adults (BRAVO) study explores the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial benefits of volunteering among 200 older adults, aged 55 plus, using quantitative and qualitative measures, and relates those benefits to the demands of the volunteers' placements and to socio-demographic and volunteering variables that may moderate the health benefits of volunteering. Participants are assessed at baseline prior to volunteering, and after six months and 12 months of volunteering.
Baycrest, a world-class leader in innovation in aging, is an academic centre affiliated with the University of Toronto and an institution that provides care through a unique continuum of care system ranging from wellness programs, residential housing and outpatient clinics to nursing home, and a continuing care facility. A conversation between Syrelle Bernstein, the Director of Volunteer Services, and Nicole Anderson, a Senior Scientist at Baycrest, who later became the Principle Investigator on this study, led to a unique collaboration between these departments. The silo-breaching research that this conversation inspired is the BRAVO study.
This paper discusses the BRAVO study and the Volunteer Services-Research department collaboration that is an important contributor to the success of this study. What is unique about BRAVO is that it engages multiple members in both departments, including a group of 26 leadership volunteers, aged 55 plus, in this research-practice partnership. This paper provides a lens into how practice has informed and adapted the research as well as how the research has informed and adapted practice. The latter includes the data collected from participants regarding their perspectives on volunteer management issues. Finally, key learnings from the collaboration and their implications for volunteer management and the broader organization are described.
The BRAVO Team consists of Baycrest staff in the two departments and the leadership volunteers. The BRAVO Team members work to enhance conceptual, theoretical, empirical and practical knowledge of volunteering and volunteer management. Mutual benefit is emphasized (Cascio, 2008; MacDuff & Netting, 2000) and the BRAVO Team actively encourages the bidirectional exchange of knowledge that has occurred within the BRAVO project since its inception. The team leverages the knowledge and skills of its members. Within this collaboration, roles are clearly defined; however, process is as important as accomplishing set goals (Jarvis, 1999). Each team member brings rich and diverse perspectives and experiences that serve to deepen the understanding of research and practice; hence, differences and diversity are recognized and encouraged (MacDuff & Netting, 2000).
Volunteer management has been enhanced through the research knowledge in several ways, such as through the BRAVO researchers regularly querying volunteer satisfaction to maximize retention and Volunteer Services adding learning objectives to volunteer roles. The research has benefited by incorporating volunteer management questions into the qualitative interviews. Participants are asked about what would encourage them to continue volunteering and reasons they might discontinue volunteering. This serves to enhance volunteer retention at Baycrest.
Cascio, W.F. (2008) To prosper, organizational psychology should. . . bridge application and scholarship, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29, 455–468. DOI: 10.1002/job.528
Hess, P. M., & Mullen, E. J. (Eds.). (1995). Practitioner-researcher partnerships: Building knowledge from, in, and for practice.Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers Press.
Jarvis, P. (1999). The practitioner-researcher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kernaghan, K. (2009). Speaking truth to academics: The wisdom of the practitioners, Canadian Public Administration, 52, 503-523.
Macduff, N. & Netting, F. E. (2000). Lessons Learned From a Practitioner-Academician Collaboration, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 29, 46-60
Phelan, A. M., Harrington, A. D. & Mercer, E. (2004), Researching learning at work Exploring an academic-workplace partnership, The Journal of Workplace Learning, 16, 275-283.
Suzanne Cook, Nicole Anderson, Syrelle Bernstein, Thecla Damianakis and the BRAVO Team
The BRAVO study explores the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial benefits of volunteering among 100 older adults, aged 55 plus, using quantitative and qualitative measures, and relates those benefits to the demands of the volunteers' placements and to socio-demographic and volunteering variables that may moderate the health benefits of volunteering. Participants are assessed at baseline prior to volunteering, and after six months and 12 months of volunteering. Traditionally, research, volunteer management and clinical work were all conducted in interdisciplinary silos. Today, we recognize that there is much to be gained from research collaboration (Jarvis, 1999). Many factors need to be in place to support successful collaboration (Cascio, 2008; Hess & Mullen, 1995; Jarvis, 2006; MacDuff & Netting, 2000). The Baycrest Research About Volunteering among Older adults (BRAVO) Project is a unique researcher-practitioner collaboration that not only combines many elements of a successful collaboration, but also engages senior volunteer researchers and, thus in the process, enhances the research and volunteer management, and strengthens the organization itself.