Examining psychological well-being in older Australian volunteers

PhD Thesis

Wood, Sylwia K.. 2016. Examining psychological well-being in older Australian volunteers. PhD Thesis Doctor of Philosophy. University of Southern Queensland.

Examining psychological well-being in older Australian volunteers

TypePhD Thesis
AuthorWood, Sylwia K.
SupervisorBurton, Professor Lorelle
du Preez, Dr Jan
Institution of OriginUniversity of Southern Queensland
Qualification NameDoctor of Philosophy
Number of Pages290

This dissertation examines factors relating to the Psychological Well-being of the baby boomers (born between 1964 and 1946) and builders (born between 1945 and 1925; McCrindle & Wolfinger, 2009), who are actively engaged in volunteer-based organisations in Australia. Previous research has suggested that prosocial behaviours such as volunteering (defined herein as offering help with no, or at most token, payment and done for the benefit of both other people and the volunteer; Morrow-Howell, 2010) are crucial to the way older members of society maintain and enhance their resilience and well-being (Jansenn, Van Regenmortel, & Abma, 2011). Other factors such as an individual’s coping efficacy (efforts to adapt to the environment by maintaining control over the events; Bandura, 1997); and social support (process by which emotional, instrumental or financial aid is obtained from one’s social network; Bowling, 1994) have also been linked to successful ageing (Desmond & MacLachlan, 2006; Moyle et al., 2010). This research is important because together these factors suggest that building community resilience (positive adaptation in challenging circumstances; Ryff & Singer, 2002) may be one possible approach to addressing some of the issues associated with a rapidly ageing population (Beard et al., 2011), a challenge facing numerous developed countries around the world (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2009). Identifying factors that contribute to older people’s well-being could prove crucial for quality health outcomes for retirees and could potentially lessen the strain on the public health sector (Beard et al., 2011).

General consensus in the literature suggests that there are no clear indicators of Psychological Well-being (Brown, Bowling, & Flynn, 2004; Pavot & Diener, 2008). Although quantitative methods of analysis have shown reliable measures for feelings and perceptions (e.g., Greenglass, Schwarzer, & Taubert, 1999a; Wagnild & Young 1993), it may be inappropriate to quantify some of the finer nuances of the nature of human being. Previous research has also typically investigated well-being in older people in clinical settings (e.g., Conradsson, Littbrand, Lindelöf, Gustafson, & Rosendahl, 2010; Kimm, Woong, Gombojav, Yi, & Ohrr, 2012; Swami, et al., 2007) rather than in an everyday context. The current research addresses these gaps in the literature by recruiting adults (healthy males and females born in or prior to 1964) who are actively engaged in community organisations within Brisbane and surrounding regional towns in South East Queensland.

Lawton’s (1991) model of quality of life was used as a theoretical framework for this research. An integrated mixed-method research approach (quantitative and qualitative; Creswell, 2007) was applied in the current research. Using quantitative and qualitative methods together has the potential to enhance our understanding of human nature and the social reality of older Australian volunteers to a greater extent than using quantitative methods alone. Two studies were conducted using a mixed-method sequential explanatory design underpinned by the assumptions of pragmatism. Study 1 is quantitative in nature and involved a survey capturing demographic data and asking older people questions from the following scales: the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985), the Perception of Well-being Measure (Lopez & de Snyder, 2001), the Resilience Scale (Wagnild & Young 1993); the Proactive Coping Scale (Greenglass, Schwarzer, & Taubert, 1999a), the General Self-Efficacy Scale (Schwarzer & Jerusalem, 1995), the Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support ( Zimet, Powell, Farley, Werkman, & Berkoff, 1990); and an adapted version of the Inventory of Motivations for Hospice Palliative Care Volunteerism (Claxton-Oldfield, Wasylkiw, Mark, & Claxton-Oldfield, 2011).

In Study 1, t-tests revealed no significant differences between the baby boomers and builders on all measures except for small differences for Leisure (aspect of Motivations for Volunteering), suggesting that the current sample is fairly homogenous. The regression analyses from survey data revealed that Resilience, Proactive Coping, General Self-efficacy (aspects of Coping Efficacy), Social Support, and Civic Responsibility (aspect of Motivations for Volunteering) all positively predicted Psychological Well-being. The results imply that older individuals who actively contribute to other people’s lives enhance their well-being by demonstrating positive coping skills, extending supportive social networks, and strengthening Resilience. Non-significant results were found for Self-promotion and Leisure (aspects of Motivations for Volunteering), indicating that these aspects are not important motivators for engagement in the community in the current sample of older people.

Mediation analyses in Study 1 revealed that Resilience is an important mediator of the relationships between: (a) Coping Efficacy and Psychological Well-being (via indirect only effect); (b) Social Support and Psychological Well-being (via indirect and direct effects); and (c) Civic Responsibility and Psychological Well-Being (via indirect only effect). These results indicate that the extent to which older people engage in proactive coping strategies, exhibit self-efficacy, and express values of Civic Responsibility do not directly improve their well-being; rather, these factors influence the level to which older people exhibit positive adaptation (Resilience), which, in turn, influences their level of Psychological Well-being. Study 1 demonstrated a positive dual effect of Social Support on Psychological Well-being: (a) Social Support was shown to influence well-being by instrumental goals (enhanced coping and relief from distress; Cohen & Wills, 1985) through illustrated mediating effect of Resilience; and relational goals (relationship formation and maintenance; Duck & Silver, 1990); and (b) the direct positive effect on Psychological Well-being. These findings indicate that levels of Resilience and satisfaction with life in older people who volunteer in the community may partly reflect their perceived quality of relationships and support received from others.

Study 2 was qualitative in nature and involved semi-structured interviews undertaken to gain a greater understanding of the factors identified in Study 1 as important to Psychological Well-being. Study 2 demonstrated that people who choose to volunteer find contributing to their communities a satisfying and meaningful activity. Important aspects of engagement in the community included being an active member and improving the community, sharing experiences through connecting with others, being able to manage commitments, and having an ongoing need for learning. This proactive attitude seemed to manifest in volunteers’ confidence in taking on new challenges and making the most of their experiences. Study 2 findings also demonstrated that older people who actively engage in the community may view this activity as an opportunity that can benefit themselves and others, rather than an obligation that must be fulfilled.

Together, the findings demonstrate that older people’s active engagement in volunteer-based community organisations benefit their health and well-being in several ways. Firstly, findings from Study 1 and Study 2 demonstrate that older people view social support networks as a vital component of their perceived well-being. Social support provides access to emotional support as well as additional resources and knowledge relevant in retirement, and potentially buffers against negative experiences such as cognitive losses or loneliness associated with ageing. Secondly, active engagement in volunteer-based community organisations provides opportunities for acquiring and practising new skills within a supportive environment that promotes mutual trust, acceptance, and a sense of belonging which, in turn, can enhance older people’s Coping Efficacy and mastery over their environment.

Thirdly, a new and important contribution of the current research is that the value of Civic Responsibility positively predicts well-being in older people. This finding implies that as older adults strive for emotional fulfillment, they seek opportunities to connect with others and contribute in a meaningful way. The responsibility to help others and the underpinning feelings of empathy, guilt, and/or regret found in Study 2 may prompt older people to self-reflect on their past achievements and challenges, and inspire them to feel both valuable and capable, and strengthen their empathy and need for deeper connections with others. Therefore, promoting reflection of prosocial values such as Civic Responsibility may be a crucial first step for engaging older people in critical thinking about how they would like to manage their health and well-being during retirement. Together, the findings suggest that creating community initiatives that value older people’s knowledge and experience enable continued opportunities for demonstrating and learning new skills which, in turn, may not only reinforce their self-worth, but also enhance older people’s coping skills, and extend their social support networks, leading to strengthened Resilience and well-being. Future studies are recommended to be undertaken to examine how individual differences (i.e., educational level, physical health, marital and volunteer status) moderate the effect of civic engagement on older people’s subjective appraisal of their well-being.

Keywordswell-being; volunteers; Australia; coping; emotional health; resilience; community engagement; older people
ANZSRC Field of Research 2020529999. Other psychology not elsewhere classified
520599. Social and personality psychology not elsewhere classified
520199. Applied and developmental psychology not elsewhere classified
449999. Other human society not elsewhere classified
Byline AffiliationsSchool of Psychology and Counselling
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