Formal Volunteering by the Elderly: Trends, Benefits, and Implications for Managers

by Christina Graham, December 2003
published with permission


The United States is undergoing a sweeping change in population demographics. The burgeoning aging population will impact the scope of older adults in the volunteer arena. These changes in demographics, as well as the mindset of the impending baby boomers, will influence how managers of volunteers will interact with and manage older volunteers in the workplace.

This paper will encompass issues related to volunteer activity among the elderly population. First and foremost, the paper will attend to the current trends in volunteering and the growing aging population. Reasons for utilizing older volunteers, volunteer groups for the elderly, benefits to the volunteers, and management issues specific to working with the elderly population will be presented.

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Elderly Volunteer Participation

Where are we headed?

Will the growing number of elderly persons in United States constitute an increase in volunteer activity in this population? Literature presents conflicting views on this issue. Milena Meneghetti (1995) states that while "seniors may be a minority of current volunteers [sic] once baby boomers grow older, we should not be surprised if they become the majority" (p. 825). On the other hand, Graff (2002) responds to the under-representation of elderly volunteers by stating that "it is reasonable to posit that older adults of the near future may not volunteer in the same proportions as they have been volunteering in their 30s or 40s" (p. 4). This lack of participation could be attributed to cohort effects and perceptions of volunteer activity. Wilson (2000) attributes these changes in attitudes toward volunteer work to the different generation's "outlooks on life" (p. 226). Whether or not there is an accurate prediction of future volunteer trends among the elderly population, one cannot disagree that the elderly population is rapidly growing and that adjustments will be required in the management of volunteers.

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Theories on elderly volunteer participation

Different theories rationalize how the aging population will effect volunteer participation. Three different theories- rational choice, exchange, and social resource- predict volunteer activity based on aging. First, rational choice theory "predicts an increase in volunteering at retirement because more free time becomes available" (Wilson, 2000, p. 226). In contrast, social exchange theory suggests that "retirees seek volunteer work to replace psychic and social benefits formerly derived from paid employment" (p. 226). According to this theory, one may observe an increase in volunteer activity at retirement. Lastly, social resource theory predicts "a decline in volunteering to the extent that withdrawing from the labor force weakens social integration" (p. 226). These theories are a comprehensive approach to defining volunteer participation among this age group. Understanding the theories behind volunteer behavior allows managers to come to a greater comprehension of elderly volunteer participation.

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Current Participation and Demographics

In general, volunteering is a widespread activity in the adult population. Giving and Volunteering in the United States found that "44% of people aged 50 and over volunteer, with significant differences by age group (58% among those 50 to 64 volunteer, while 42% among those 65+ do so)" (AARP, 2003, p. 1). According to the Bureau of Labor statistics' "Volunteering in the US," the "volunteer rates were lowest among persons aged 65 years and over" (2002). Discrepancy exists in volunteer activity within the elderly population, as well. For example, "persons over age eighty-five are significantly less likely to volunteer than the group aged sixty-five to seventy-four" (Brown, 2000, p. 38). This disparity in age group participation could be explained from various perspectives. For the purpose of this paper, however, all persons age sixty-five years of age and over will be classified as elderly volunteers.

Paramount to elderly volunteer participation is the fact that "volunteers age 65 and over donated the most time- a median of 96 hours- to volunteer activities" (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002). To benchmark, a median of 34 hours a year was noted for volunteers age 25 to 34 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002). Brown (2000) found that "older volunteers gave slightly more time, on average, than their younger counterparts" (p. 37). These statistics suggest that while older volunteers may be more rare, once involved, they seem to remain devoted to the organization. In addition, of all age groups, volunteers age sixty-five and over were the most likely to have five hundred volunteer hours or more throughout the year. Ten percent of the older volunteers acquired 500 hours or more with the next closest age group, 55-64, earning 7.4 percent (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002, table 2).

In targeting elderly volunteers, it is imperative to conceptualize which older persons are prone to volunteer. First and foremost, independently of health and age, "persons over age sixty-five are more likely to volunteer if they are married and if they are employed" (Brown, 2000, p. 37). According to Wacker et al., "characteristics associated with volunteerism in later life include health, marital status, and previous experience" (2002, p. 76). Demographic trends propose that "older volunteers are more likely than nonvolunteers to have a higher socio-economic status, to be married, to have a religious affiliation, to be in paid work, to evaluate their health highly, to have larger social networks, and to have a past history of volunteering" (Chambre, 1987; Davis & Smith, 1992; Warburton, LeBrocque, & Rosenman, 1998). Of particular significance to the elderly population, health status is perhaps the most dominant predictor of volunteering, as a poor health status may prevent volunteer activity. Second, "studies routinely find that highly educated individuals participate in more volunteer activity than those that are less educated" (Chambre 1993; Wilson and Musick, 1997). Third, religious affiliation is consistently ranked as a predictor of volunteer activity. "Religiosity is thought to shape volunteering because most religious faiths promote assistance to others as a valued activity and also because religious organizations provide convenient vehicles for engaging in such voluntary activity" (Caro and Bass, 1997; Wilson and Janoski, 1995). Fourth, having a personal history of volunteering "is consistently related to volunteer activities in the literature" (Muthcler et al., 2003). In summary, it appears that these determinants, i.e. healthy, educated, religious, married, active socially, and experienced, conceptualize the majority of elderly volunteers. This generates special considerations for managers of volunteers to explore, as these characteristics alone will impact the diversity of the volunteer base.

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Where are the Elderly Volunteering and How Did They Get There?

An area of inquiry for managers of volunteers may be how these people are locating and getting involved with organizations. Volunteers age 65 and over were the most likely to volunteer their time with religious organizations, as opposed to non-profit organizations (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002). While research suggests that asking someone to volunteer is the most powerful way to obtain results, 42 percent of the older volunteers in this study were more prone to approach the organization themselves (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002, table 6). Not only is asking someone to volunteer an effective strategy, studies show that "people who are asked to give are both more likely to give and give more than people who give on their own" (Giving and Volunteering, 2001, p. 9). It appears as if elderly individuals are willing to volunteer, but are the least likely group to be pursued. An additional statistic that supports this data is that "among nonvolunteers, 24 percent and 17 percent of the near old, and young old, respectively, indicated that they were both willing and able to volunteer" (Morris, 1995, p. 36). Volunteer recruits may not be maximizing their potential in reaching and utilizing these able-bodied elderly volunteers.

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Why Engage Elderly Volunteers?

An organization may be skeptical as to why they should incorporate elderly volunteers into the volunteer program. As stated below, research has found numerous reasons why an agency would want to utilize elderly volunteers, including: maturity, availability, skills, loyalty, and pure numbers (

The Institute for Volunteering Research found that older people assist their agencies through these various avenues. Elderly volunteers have an opportunity to volunteer because of decreased commitments and more flexibility in schedules. In addition, "research shows that older people contribute more hours than any other age group, are more likely to be content with their voluntary work and to stick with it" ( Loyalty to an organization has become more rare, and can be a valuable tool for an organization. Lastly, and perhaps most relevant, "there has been a steep rise in the number of older people as a proportion of the population which offers a pool of available volunteers to tap into" ( Energize Inc finds that "the productive potential of the older population constitutes an important social and economic resource."

In terms of benefits to the organization, targeting older volunteers is likely to increase the average number of volunteer hours per participant. Chambre (1993) states that "recruitment of retirees, in particular, is a cost-effective strategy because they devote more time than other groups when they are involved" (p. 226). As organizations expend time and energy training volunteers, stability is key to making a cost-effective exchange.

Morris and Caro (1995) state that using older volunteers is of vital importance because they "hold an abundance of human capital. They are predominately in good health and well educated, and many have valuable expertise accumulated over a lifetime of paid work and social participation." While youthfulness is also an esteemed quality in a volunteer, there is minimal substitute for an individual with a perfected skill or an abundance of social connections within the community. These skills are developed over time, which is an attribute unique to the elderly population.

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Programs for Elderly Volunteers

It is evident that elderly volunteers are contributors to our nation through the different programs that have been established to coordinate their efforts. Throughout the years, programs have been initiated to integrate the aging population into the voluntary sector. According to Wacker et al., "[i]n 1965 the first service program targeting low-income seniors emerged, the Foster Grandparents program" (2002, p. 74). The Foster Grandparents Program commenced as an "anti-poverty program to provide community service employment and an income supplement in the form of a 'stipend' to low-income elderly" (Chambre, 1993, p. 224). Other programs that have emerged are the Retired Senior and Volunteer Program (RSVP), and the Senior Companion Program. The RSVP program is "part of the Senior Corps, a network of national service programs that provides older Americans the opportunity to apply their life experience to meeting community needs" ( These programs afford older adults an opportunity to get involved, help others, and help themselves. For additional information on volunteer programs for the elderly see

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Benefits to the Elderly from Volunteering

Numerous benefits from volunteering have been identified within literature. While the specific causes of these benefits are difficult to determine, it is evident that volunteer activity is a contributor. The concept of health status and volunteering can be viewed from a cause or an effect premise. As previously mentioned, some state that good health predicts volunteering, while others argue that volunteering improves health. Might both be true?

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Physical Health and Volunteering

First, "health status can be expected to be a more important predictor of volunteering among the population over age sixty-five" (Brown, 1999, p. 36). While the elderly are statistically less represented in the voluntary sector, "once health status has been controlled for, the retirement years are not marked by a steady decline in volunteering" (Brown, 2000, p. 158). Therefore, one's health status will determine whether an individual engages in volunteer activity initially. Brown (2000) found that "persons in very good or excellent health are more than eight times as likely to volunteer as persons whose health is poor" (p. 38).

Secondly, from an effect standpoint, volunteering has been suggested to have a positive effect on one's health status. "Voluntarism not only helps the recipient of services, it often benefits the volunteer themselves" (Grossman and Furnao, 2002). This can be especially pertinent for the elderly population as volunteer activity "can provide needed social connections" (2002, p. 2). One supposition for the increased health effects is that "volunteering is an additional social role" and provides "beneficial health effects associated with more social ties" (Wilson, 2000, p. 231). This study also presents the physical benefits of volunteering, which are especially important to the aging population. Grossman and Furano state that "highly organized activity [such as regular volunteering] is the single strongest predictor, other than smoking, of longevity and vitality" (Grossman and Furano, 2002, p. 2). Not only does volunteering appear to affect one's health physically, volunteers regard their health higher than non-volunteers. The Experience Corps "found that while 30 percent of its volunteers (who were primarily in their 50s and 60s) reported they were in 'excellent' or 'very good' health before they started volunteering, 42 percent of them felt this way after their volunteering experience" (2002, p. 2). This suggests that, at the very least, volunteers feel healthier through participation in volunteer activity.

The potential benefit to older volunteers has been cited in numerous studies (Chen, 1999; Warburton et al., 2001; Young and Glasgow, 1998). A study by Warburton et al., found that "there is a broad range of psychosocial benefits to be gained by older people maintaining an active profile in society" (2001, p. 587). A study performed by Marc Musick found that "volunteering delayed death, even when differences in the two groups' health, income, and number of weekly social interactions were factored out" (Chen, 1999). This research also discovered that "people giving 40 hours a year to one cause were 40% more likely than non-volunteers to be alive at the study's end; those who divided the same number of hours among several organizations gained no such advantage"(Chen, 1999). This finding suggests that it is not purely the act of volunteering that increases health, but maintaining consistency in the volunteer placement. In this article, Musick gave advice to pick a volunteer activity and stick with it.

An alternate view of the relationship between health and volunteering was presented in a research study by Canadian'sYoung and Glasgow (1998). Through their study, "controlling for sociodemographic characteristics and religious participation, those who participate in instrumental community-oriented voluntary organizations have higher levels of self-reported health" ( For more information on the benefits of volunteering see "Volunteering and Healthy Aging: What we Know" at,2,11.

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Emotional Health and Volunteering

Along with health, other benefits have been found that correlate with volunteering among the aging population. Graff (1991) "argues that volunteering contributes to the health, vitality, self-esteem, and longevity of volunteers" (1991). Additional benefits to volunteering in later life are "enhanced health and life satisfaction (Harlow and Cantor, 1996; VanWilligen, 2000), improved self-esteem and psychological well-being (Herzog et al., 1998; Thosits and Hewitt, 2001) and benefits to longevity (Musick, Herzog, and House, 1999; Oman, Thoresen and McMahon, 1999)"(Mutchlet, Burr, and Caro, 2003). These benefits are significant for the elderly population.

The Institute of Volunteering Research found that "for the older person, voluntary work can: help maintain a sense of purpose and self-respect, particularly for those who have retired from paid work; lessen the isolation felt by those cut off from social networks in the workplace and from their families; have beneficial effects on physical; and mental health ( "In a meta-analysis by Wheeler et al. (1998) of 37 studies of the effect of volunteering on the elderly populations, a significant positive relationship between volunteering and life satisfaction was found, even after adjustments for socio-economic status and physical health" (Wilson, 2000, p. 232). Research determines that volunteering has a positive effect on the individual. What, then, can we do to increase involvement in volunteer activity in the older population? Managers must recognize the unique needs of the population in order to cater to them and secure volunteer participation.

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Issues in Managing Elderly Volunteers

Level of Ability

One issue that arises in supervising volunteers is understanding the level to which an individual is capable of performing tasks. Energize Inc. suggests that "today's 'senior' needs to be approached by level of activity, not just date of birth" (Lee, 1998, p. 108). "Young seniors are often very active and fully capable of helping in any volunteer role…Middle seniors may still be very competent, but may also have health, sight or hearing problems" (Lee, 1998, p. 108). Supervising older volunteers requires remaining cognizant of their skills and limitations. For more information on special situations, see

Organizations may be hesitant to offer difficult or complex tasks to elderly individuals, however, "the limits of what older volunteers can contribute on a continuing basis will be known only when organizations risk assigning important responsibilities to volunteers" (Morris et al., 1995). In determining how much an elderly volunteer can do, it is important to not classify all elderly into one large group. The abilities of a 65 year old may look much different than that of an 85 year old.

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Recruitment of the Elderly: Where to Look and How to Sell It

With the burgeoning aging population, volunteer managers must learn how to effectively target and recruit this particular population. Recruiting the elderly population is different from recruiting other groups of individuals. Remaining cognizant of the fact that "older volunteers are more likely to see volunteering as filling a need for activity" is important (Fischer,1991). Assisting an older individual in finding a desirable volunteer placement could lead to an optimal fit for the organization and the volunteer. "One major reason that many older people give for not volunteering is that no one asked them" (Fischer, 1991). As mentioned earlier, the task of merely asking may bring additional elderly volunteers into action.

Additionally, it may be advantageous to "focus recruitment efforts on individuals in midlife who have not yet reached retirement age. Consistent with continuity theory, prior experience with volunteering is a powerful predictor of whether someone volunteers in later life" (Mutchler, 2003).

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New Mindsets

An additional issue managers must confront is the varying mindsets of the imminent elderly population. Baby boomers appear to be looking for quality placements in the volunteer arena. Judy Esmond (2001) found that boomers "view their time as enormously important and they do not have time for a disorganized volunteer experience" (p. 2). Therefore, organization of volunteer placements appears to influence whether or not a volunteer is inclined to devote his or her time. Baby boomers want to use their talents and skills to help others while also meeting their needs" (Esmond, 2001). Matching these needs necessitates strategic planning on the part of the organization to become "increasingly customer focused in relation to their volunteers" (Esmond, 2001, p. 2). Because "most traditional social service organizations are not currently focused on shaping their volunteer management systems to attract retired Baby Boomer volunteers" something must change if older volunteers are to be obtained (Esmond, 2001, p. 2). Research suggests, "a major attraction of retirement is flexibility and escape from the routine nature of paid work" (Fischer and Shaffer, 1993; Warburton, Rosenman, and Wonocur, 1995). With this in mind, a volunteer manager might want to modify volunteer experiences to allow for flexibility of the volunteer. In addition to flexibility, volunteers "may be reluctant to make a substantial commitment to volunteering because the assignments open to them are not challenging" (Morris et al., 1995). Finding a balance of creative work that is challenging for a population with certain limitations will require effort. Creating volunteer placements for the upcoming elderly will require thought, time, and patience by the manager of volunteers. For more specific information on the mindset of Baby boomers, see e-Volunteerism's "Boomnert, Capturing the Baby boomer Volunteers" at

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Roadblocks They Face

The elderly will face unique roadblocks in the volunteer arena. A predictor of how much an elderly individual can do is where they live, and how they will arrive at the volunteer placement. Transportation may be an issue for some elderly due to physical, or perhaps financial, limitations. Organizations must have plans for how a volunteer can offer services and have access to transportation. In addition, can work be brought to "home bound or less mobile elders?" ( Paying attention to the elderly that reside in residential care facilities is also an area for special consideration.

An impediment to volunteer participation of older adults is an upper age limit. According to a survey, Issues in Volunteer Management, conducted in 1998 "19% of organizations has upper age limits for volunteers" ( Organizations must consider age limits and restructure policies if they are to tap into the growing elderly population as volunteer potential. For more information see the article "Age Discrimination and Volunteering" at

One potentially disastrous issue is that of a volunteer aging in place. Volunteers that have been with an organization for an extensive period of time, but have aged and possibly lost skills, could be problematic for an organization. One way to remedy this situation is to "insist on a rotation policy for everyone so that no volunteer becomes so entrenched in one assignment that its impossible to make a change" (Lee, 1998, p. 108). Each of these issues presents the unique needs of employing elderly volunteers. Managers must remain educated on these areas, and implement plans to handle special situations in this population.

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In conclusion, it is vital that managers of volunteers remain cognizant of the special issues that arise in dealing with elderly volunteers. It is also essential that these managers value the contributions of older adults and create a plan to optimize their effectiveness within organizations. Demographic changes require this increased attention if managers are to profit from the knowledge and skills that this population possesses. Understanding the volunteering trends among the elderly population, as well as the direction of this group of individuals is paramount to the effective management of elderly volunteers in the workplace.

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