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Volunteering brings fulfillment, joy to seniors

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Dr. Nancy Sherman, a professor in the Department of Leadership in Education, Human Services and Counseling, and colleagues won the 2012 Outstanding Publication Award in the journal Adultspan for their work studying older adults and volunteerism.

As baby boomers reach retirement, four Bradley University professors and a former graduate student set out to learn what gives America’s aging population fulfillment.

Dr. Nancy Sherman and Dr. Christopher Rybak of the Department of Leadership in Education, Human Services and Counseling; Dr. Kevin Randall and Dr. Jeanette Davidson of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences; and counseling graduate student Rebecca Michel explored how physical and mental health, and especially volunteerism, are associated with meaning in life among older adults.

Meaning in life, according to the study, provides context for life events so people can develop connections between their experiences. A consistent, fulfilling existence helps older adults feel connected, focused and balanced.

The researchers’ study, “Meaning in Life and Volunteerism in Older Adults,” won the 2012 Outstanding Publication Award in the journal Adultspan. They found that older adults who are more physically and mentally fit experience greater meaning in life, but more significantly, those who volunteer report higher life regard than those who don’t.

“It is important that throughout your life you feel as though you are here for a purpose,” says Dr. Sherman, the lead author on the article. “When we get older, there are many things that change our meaning in life, as we may no longer have careers or are raising families. Because there can be so many losses in such a short time period, it’s vital that older adults find something or continue to do something that gives them meaning. Without that, we see more cases of depression.”

Dr. Sherman says that one common myth about aging is that older adults are inherently depressed. “But that shouldn’t be a given. There are steps counselors can take to help older clients and treat the whole person.”

Some of these steps resulting from the study include appropriately identifying and treating depression, assisting older adults in developing appropriate coping skills to manage stressful life events and connecting clients with the right resources.

Additionally, counselors should encourage clients to engage in their communities through volunteer activities to promote a healthy, more positive experience later in life.

The researchers studied 147 participants ages 63 to 98 throughout central Illinois. They were recruited at community meetings, learning institutes for retired persons and social activities. Michel and others interviewed the participants and administered the Life Regard Index and Geriatric Depression Scale.

The research showed that the 24.5 percent of participants who volunteered reported significantly greater meaning in life than non-volunteers.

The study considered only the number of volunteer hours per week, not the type of volunteer work.

“It would be interesting in the future to examine whether certain types of volunteering are more beneficial,” Dr. Sherman says. “We could then be even more proactive if we discovered certain activities have a greater impact.