Volunteering Protects Older Adults at Risk for Loss of Purpose in Life

Greenfield, Emily A., and Nadine F. Marks
Working paper no. 2003-20


Objectives: Guided by interactional role theory and employing a resilience framework, this study aimed to investigate whether volunteering protects older adults with more role-identity absences (partner, employment, and parent) from poorer mental health (hedonic and eudaimonic).

Method: We use data from 589 participants, aged 60-74, in the 1995 Midlife Development in the U.S. (MIDUS) survey. Multivariate regression models estimated the effects of role-identity absences, volunteering, and the interaction between role-identity absences and volunteering on negative affect, positive affect, and purpose in life.

Results: Participants with greater numbers of role-identity absences reported more negative affect, less positive affect, and less purpose in life. Being a volunteer was associated with a positive, main effect on positive affect and moderated the negative effect of role-identity absences on respondents’ feelings of purpose in life.

Discussion: Consistent with previous studies, findings indicate that having multiple role-identity absences constitutes a risk factor for poorer mental health. Results further demonstrate that being a volunteer can protect older adults with multiple role-identity absences from decreased feelings of purpose in life. Findings also suggest that the associations between volunteering and mental health may be contingent upon the volunteer’s role-identity status and the dimension of mental health examined.