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Older adults show reduced depression and loneliness, increased life satisfaction after serving as Foster Grandparent or Senior Companion

new independent report that provides evidence that consistent volunteering can improve the health and well-being of people age 55 and older was released recently by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency responsible for the nation’s volunteer and service efforts.

The study examined how participation in national service contributes to changes in health and well-being of Senior Corps volunteers in the Senior Companion and Foster Grandparent programs—who help home-bound seniors maintain independence and tutor and mentor at-risk youth, respectively. A companion study explored the health benefits to caregivers who receive support from Senior Corps Senior Companion volunteers.

“I’m thrilled with the release of this independent study because it confirms what we have long believed to be true: Senior Corps volunteers are not only improving the lives of others, they are also improving their own,” said Deborah Cox-Roush, director of Senior Corps. “These volunteers are feeling healthier and less depressed. What’s also exciting is they say they feel less socially isolated, which we know has important health benefits. Along the way, Senior Corps volunteers found a sense of accomplishment, opportunities for personal growth, and chances to form meaningful relationships.”

According to the research, Senior Corps volunteers report much higher self-rated health scores, which is considered a valid marker of actual health, compared to older adults in similar circumstances who do not volunteer. They also reported feeling significantly less depressed and isolated compared to non-volunteers.

  • After two years of service in Senior Corps, 84 percent of older adults reported improved or stable health.
  • 32 percent of Senior Corps volunteers who reported good health at the beginning of the study reported improved health at the two-year follow-up.
  • Of those who reported five or more symptoms of depression at the beginning of the study, 78 percent said they felt less depressed two years later.
  • 88 percent of Senior Corps volunteers who first described a lack of companionship reported a decrease in feelings of isolation after two years.
  • Among those who initially reported a lack of companionship, 71 percent reported an improvement in their companionship status.

“Our Senior Corps volunteers have a decades-long history of setting examples for all of us to follow by serving our friends and neighbors,” said Barbara Stewart, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that administers the Senior Corps program. “These 220,000 men and women provide vital support to Americans, both young and young-at-heart, and reap health benefits in return. We are grateful for the generosity of our super seniors and their commitment to making a difference in their communities.”

Senior Corps provides opportunities to Americans who might not otherwise have the opportunity to serve their community due to financial or other barriers – 80 percent of volunteers in the study reported a household income of less than $20,000 per year and one-third reported a long lasting condition that limits basic physical activity. Open to Americans 55 and older with incomes up to 200% of the poverty line, the Foster Grandparent Program and Senior Companion Program are unique among volunteer organizations in that volunteers earn a small stipend. While the large majority of volunteers reported joining service for altruistic reasons, close to one-third had an underlying financial reason, due to the stipend, for volunteering.

Senior Corps volunteers found their community service satisfying and meaningful, and they reported having opportunities for personal growth, a sense of accomplishment, and friend-making, all factors associated with improved health, psychological, and emotional well-being and connection to the community. More than 75 percent remained in service through the first year, compared to two-thirds of volunteers nationally. Retention was highest among volunteers with the lowest income, those who reported a disability, and those who attained at most a high school diploma or had not graduated high school.

The national study, launched in 2014, collected data from 1,200 first-time Senior Corps volunteers throughout their service with the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion programs to determine the effect of national service on older adults’ overall health and well-being. The study surveyed first-time Senior Corps volunteers upon entrance into the program and again at one- and two-year follow-up intervals, using survey questions adopted from the University of Michigan’s annual Health and Retirement Study.

A companion study of caregivers determined that caregivers found the assistance of Senior Companions beneficial and for some, the respite provided by a volunteer even improved their health. The study surveyed caregivers of Senior Companion clients prior to the start of respite care and again at a one-year follow-up point.

  • Nearly 76 percent of caregivers in the critical-needs group reported Senior Companion respite services helped them “a lot” with both personal time and household management.
  • Approximately 60 percent of caregivers with critical needs reported that Senior Companion services helped them “a lot” or a “great deal” and allowed them to be more involved in social activities and enjoy time with their friends or relatives.
  • Approximately 40 percent of caregivers who rated their health as fair or poor before respite support, now rate their health as good.
  • Most caregivers (92 percent critical needs, 86 percent with essential needs, and 93 percent with moderate needs) reported they were satisfied with the respite services received from the Senior Companion program.

Each year, Senior Corps engages approximately 220,000 Americans 55 and older through its Foster Grandparent, Senior Companion, and RSVP programs – all addressing some of the nation’s most pressing challenges – everything from fighting the opioid epidemic, reducing crime and reviving cities, connecting veterans to jobs and benefits, preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs, ensuring seniors age independently and with dignity, and helping Americans rebuild their lives following a disaster.

These studies are part of a larger body of research that highlights the positive impact of national service, particularly for senior volunteers and the communities in which they serve. More information on this research and Senior Corps programs is available at seniorcorps.gov/healthyvolunteers.

Information from AmeriCorps & Senior Corps

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