Helping others: A path to social connectedness, health, and well-being for older Canadians

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1) Older adults, social connection, & health

The Canadian population is aging rapidly: in the next 20 years, the population of adults aged 65 and up in Canada is expected to increase by 68%.1 Aging comes with a rise in a number of chronic conditions ranging from cancer to diabetes.2 Social connection is one powerful safeguard against ill-health. When people are more integrated in their communities, they are more likely to practice positive health behaviours such as exercising and eating well.3 Conversely, poor social connection has been linked to negative health outcomes (such as increased mortality4 and incident dementia5) to an extent that is comparable to other well-established risk factors (e.g., obesity, diabetes) in Canadian adults.4,6

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased our awareness of barriers to social connection in older adults. Researchers at Simon Fraser University found that loneliness increased in both women and men aged 65-74 from 2011-2015 to 2020.8 While older adults were generally resilient across the course of the pandemic,9 those without adequate social connections may have been vulnerable.

Reflecting on the importance of social connection in later life, we discuss how prosocial behaviours may be a powerful way to boost social connection and consequently improve the health and well-being of older Canadians.

2) Prosociality as a way to stay connected & promote health in older adults

Prosocial acts can be defined as “voluntary acts that are motivated by a concern for the welfare or benefit of others.”10 These acts encompass a range of behaviours including volunteering with organizations, informal helping, and acts of kindness.

Prosocial acts improve health and well-being and foster social connectedness. Volunteering in older adults has been associated with improved health outcomes (e.g., better mental health, improved cognition, decreased mortality risk), potentially through improved social (e.g., social support and engagement), psychological (e.g., higher purpose in life), behavioural (e.g., increased physical activity), and biological (e.g., improved immune functioning) pathways.11 Other forms of prosocial behaviour, such as informal helping, are potentially even more accessible than formal volunteering12,13 and have also been associated with improved health and well-being outcomes.10

As we emerge from this time of pandemic, promoting prosocial behaviours in older adults may simultaneously better society and enhance the well-being and social connectedness of those who engage in prosocial acts.

3) Encouraging/Increasing Prosociality in Older Adults & Field Examples

Many older adults have the potential and desire to remain productive and give back to society in meaningful ways.14 Accordingly, many organizations have implemented programming that allows older adults to exercise prosociality while simultaneously addressing important societal needs.

One such example is intergenerational programming, which involves pairing older adults with members of other younger generations, and may be valuable for both parties.15 Older adults can contribute wisdom, emotional stability, communication skills, and a wealth of other assets acquired over the lifespan, making them ideal mentors for children and youth. One program in British Columbia brought a grade 6 classroom into an assisted-living facility for 3 months. The students’ and older adults’ activities were integrated: students helped with chores such as setting tables, while the older adults helped with school-related activities and projects. All participants described an increased sense of social connectedness as the key benefit of the program.16 Similar results have been observed in other intergenerational programs,17 highlighting the potential for intergenerational volunteering in older adults to promote social connectedness and enhance well-being.17      

In recognition of the benefits of connected communities to both older adults and the broader community, the World Health Organization created an age-friendly city framework. An age-friendly city is one that allows for older adults to participate and contribute to their communities while accounting for their accessibility needs, with key domains including social and civic participation.18 Cities across Canada, with this framework in mind, have created communities that provide opportunities to age in place with few barriers to staying active and simultaneously prioritize connection and contribution.18 For example, Calgary launched an age-friendly city initiative, and through community discussions, found they could support older adults continued engagement in volunteering and other forms of prosociality by creating information hubs specific to older adults and improving transportation options.18

Our latest study, published in Scientific Reports,19 asked the question: how might changes in health and well-being factors lead to changes in volunteering behaviour over time? In 13,771 participants from the Health and Retirement Study, we found that changes in various aspects of individuals’ physical-, behavioural-, and psychosocial-well-being predicted their engagement in volunteering four years later. To give a few examples, older adults who engaged in frequent physical activity, had better physical functioning and cognitive functioning, and had higher purpose in life, were more likely to be volunteering four years later. As we consider elevating increased volunteering as an important policy and public health goal, our study highlights key intervention targets that governments, volunteering organizations, and corporations can aim at to increase volunteering rates in our nation.

4) Conclusion

Our aging population has the desire and potential to age gracefully and give back to others. Researchers, policymakers, and organizations should aim to provide opportunities for older adults to give back in meaningful ways.

There is much work to be done to understand the health and well-being benefits of various prosocial acts, as well as the factors that predict increased prosociality in older adults. Our research group and collaborators are currently using a combination of intervention and epidemiological cohort studies to assess predictors of, outcomes associated with, mechanistic pathways underlying, and social structural moderators of various prosocial behaviours and indicators of health and well-being. We hope our research will promote more informed decision making around encouraging healthy aging, prosociality, and social connectedness in older Canadians.

Looking to get involved or stay informed about local volunteering options? For more information, check out Volunteer Canada’s volunteer page or your province’s Volunteer Centre (e.g., Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Quebec).

About the authors:

Julia S. Nakamura, M.A., Ph.D. Student, Psychology, University of British Columbia

Marisa Nelson, Psychology, University of British Columbia

Michelle Lin, Psychology, University of British Columbia

Frances S. Chen, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Psychology, University of British Columbia


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