Elderly volunteering and well-being: a cross-European comparison based on SHARE data

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


As people get older they often find volunteering a good substitute to lost social roles, such as work and active parenthood. Indeed, some research points to the fact elderly people, having more time, volunteer more. However, by helping others older volunteers can also help themselves and enhance their physical, mental and social well-being. Volunteering is believed to assume an especially important role among the elderly, particularly if they are retired, since it can help protect them from the pitfalls of retirement, physical decline and inactivity, becoming "serious leisure" (Wilson & Musick, 2000). By now it is clear that volunteering is related to older volunteers' mental and/or psychological health and well-being. Elderly volunteers benefit through increased life satisfaction, self-esteem, access to support systems and feelings of usefulness (Van Willigen, 2000). The social integration related to volunteer work can enhance one's well-being, since the reduction of social isolation can lead to less depression (Wilson & Musick, 2000). Volunteering may also result in decreased psychological stress, and may buffer the negative consequences of stress; it enhances life satisfaction, the will to live, self- respect; and it reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety (see review by Thoits & Hewitt, 2001). There is also a positive relation between volunteering and physical health. Volunteers have better health than non-volunteer elders, and are less likely to die than nonvolunteers, regardless of level of church attendance, age, marital status, education or gender (Musick, Herzog, & House, 1999). Theoretical explanations to volunteering in older age and its benefits can be found in role theory, disengagement theory, activity theory and the continuity theory. The current study is based on the first wave of the SHARE (Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe), which surveyed 30,023 Europeans aged fifty and above in twelve countries. Participants reported volunteering in the last month, as well as their self-perceived health, life satisfaction, depression, and their expectations to live to a certain age. The data analysis showed that volunteering rates differed according to country. The highest rates of volunteering were found in Northern-Europe and the lowest rates in Southern-Europe. Furthermore, volunteering varied according to age, gender and employment status, but differently so according in each country. In most countries we found some increase in volunteering rates when people reach the age of 61-70, and then a dramatic decrease at the age of 71 and older. Volunteering rates werehigher among employed elderly than among the retired, unemployed or home-makers. Volunteers reported higher rates of physical health, life satisfaction and lower rates of depression, and they were more optimistic about their chances to live longer. The contribution of the current study is the notion that such an effect varies in different countries. In some, the correlation between volunteering and well-being was very strong, while in others – weak and insignificant. This could not be explained by rates of volunteering, since in countries where the relation between volunteering and well-being was the strongest (Israel and Italy) volunteering rates were relatively low. It is possible that in countries where the welfare system is strong such as in Northern-Europe, people volunteer more due to stronger sense of solidarity, but perhaps feel less needed – if they will not deliver the services, the state or someone else would. Another explanation is that in Northern-European countries where welfare is strong and the elderly have good pensions and health systems, the rates of life satisfaction are high among all citizens, regardless of their volunteer work. Perhaps people in these countries do not feel as if they have to prove themselves "worthy" there. The welfare state in each country can explain high level of well-being among elders in Northern-Europe, regardless to their volunteer habits. Additionally, where there is a withdrawal of the welfare state, self esteem of elders can be negatively affected and volunteering can help restore that. Other explanations are based on the Social Origins Theory (Salamon & Anheier, 1998) according to which countries differ in their “nonprofit regimes”. For example, the social-democratic regime, such as in Northern Europe, the state-sponsored and state-delivered social welfare protections are quite extensive and the room left for service-providing nonprofit organizations is quite constrained. This may explain why volunteering is regarded as less necessary in this countries, which may result in lower impact on well-being. However, Italy is also a social-democratic regime, but the current study demonstrates different results there.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes
EventISTR Conference (9th : 2010) - Istanbul, Turkey
Duration: 7 Jul 201010 Jul 2010


ConferenceISTR Conference (9th : 2010)
CityIstanbul, Turkey


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