In the Spirit of Service: How We Reach out in Later Life

Article excerpt

Serving others is one of the most fundamental social motives humans can have. On seeing others in need, our impulse is to help. As I watch my two-year-old granddaughter help her year-old sister get unstuck from the corner of a couch, I realize just how elemental and mundane this impulse to care is. At the other end of cognitive development, residents of Alzheimer's units often show concern for each other and help one another, even though they do not even know the name of the person they are helping.

From very early in life, people are taught first to assist those close to them and later to join forces with others to help meet community needs through voluntary organizations. How does aging influence the balance between serving in informal settings and serving in voluntary organizations? What are the forces at play that shift the targets of the impulses to care?


Many of the insights I've gained toward answering these questions come from the 1999 Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Adaptation, which I directed during my years at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. For more than 20 years, the study fol lowed a panel of more than 1,400 community residents age 50 or older at the start of the research in 1975. This study looked at continuity and change in the inner workings of the respondents' values, beliefs and preferences, as well as participants' lifestyle patterns of involvement in various types of activity, such as service in various types of voluntary organizations and service in informal networks of family and friends.

Two types of shifts-outer changes and inner growth-in people's lives altered the balance between service in organizational settings and in informal situations: increasing needs for care in respondents' personal networks, and developmental changes connected with conservation of energy and spiritual growth. Only five percent of those on the panel reported never having been involved in helping family or friends.

As the members of the panel grew older, the need for aid increased among the members of their personal networks. Among married respondents, more than a third were involved in ongoing spousal caregiving at some time during the study. A few provided regular childcare for their grandchildren. In addition, a significant minority of respondents provided at least occasional assistance to friends, and a few offered ongoing help. The aid to friends and family often involved preparing meals, doing home repairs, shopping, providing transportation and assisting with ambulation. The most common form of helping often was just being with a person and providing compassionate listening. The overall picture that emerged is one of increasing responsibilities to the personal network, which could be expected to compete favorably with civic organizations for time and energy.

As the respondents aged, many of them moved into what I call conservation of energy mode-a state in which one is very aware of having limited energy and is more careful about how energy is spent. Respondents gradually weeded out activities that were less central to their values-for a large majority, maintaining connections with their personal network was a top priority.

Over time, most respondents became more aware of and interested in their inner life, and most increased the amount of time they spent in contemplation and rumination. …