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Never volunteer for anything
is one of those old sayings that somehow gains credibility through repetition, though it may be one of those peculiarly British things. There may, though, be times when volunteering is a good thing. A (rather difficult) meta-analysis on the effects of volunteering on older volunteers and the people they serve suggests it may be a good idea.


Using a wide searching strategy, 51 manuscripts were found, of which 37 had information that could be used to calculate effect sizes and were used for the analysis. Thirty had information about the effects of volunteering on older people, and ten on the people they serve. Most studies were performed in the USA. These were not randomised trials in the main, but most used standardised outcome measures measuring life satisfaction or happiness. Direct helping was the most common form of volunteering, with some using indirect helping or membership of groups.

The statistical analysis in this study was complicated. Ultimately it used a statistic called Cohen's U3 . For example, a U3 of 0.75 comparing a group of volunteers with their non-volunteering counterparts on life satisfaction would be simply interpretable as 75% of the volunteers scoring higher on a measure of life satisfaction score than their average non-volunteering counterpart.


The number of older volunteers studied varied from 15 to 2164 (median 98), with an average age of about 70 years, and a predominance of white, female and unmarried (predominately widowed) people. People served ranged from 54 to 739 participants in each study (median 70), with little demographic detail about them.

Older volunteers

The study concluded that 70% of older volunteers enjoy a greater quality of life than the average non-volunteer does. Active volunteer participation seemed to be better than a passive voluntary membership or engagement in some form of activity.

People served

The study concluded that 85% of people served by older volunteers enjoy a greater quality of life than the average person in a comparison group. Examples would be nursing home residents being less depressed when visited and helped by volunteers.


It seems that both older volunteers and the people they serve benefit most from the experience when it involves a face-to-face helping relationship. Most healthier older people are not in paid employment, but they represent a huge human resource, certainly able and perhaps willing to help both themselves and others.

Examples of programmes in the USA include a Retired Senior Volunteers Program (RSVP) in which volunteers serve vulnerable older people, and a foster grandparents programme, which speaks for itself.

This is a complicated review, and without getting and reading all the papers it is almost impossible adequately to assess its quality. Randomised trials there may not be, but despite this the review shows what has been done (mainly in the USA), identifies the literature, and may give clues as to what would constitute a meaningful study. Most of all it gives the idea, the hope, perhaps, that there are things that could (and perhaps should) be done given some spark and a few resources.


  1. JA Wheeler, KM Gorey, B Greenblatt. The beneficial effects of volunteering for older volunteers and the people they serve: a meta-analysis. International Journal of Aging and Human Development 1998 47: 69-79.

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