Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Senior Companion Program Volunteers: Exploring Experiences, Transformative Rituals, and Recruitment/retention Issues

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Senior Companion Program Volunteers: Exploring Experiences, Transformative Rituals, and Recruitment/retention Issues

Article excerpt

As countries like the United States experience an increase in their older populations, it will be important for researchers to qualitatively examine the lived experiences of the elderly to understand how their activities influence the aging process. This is especially true since the more an older person has social interaction with others; the better off the person is (Bradley, 2000). Consider a subset of activity known as volunteerism--organizational-based freely chosen actions with the goal of helping others (Snyder & Omoto, 2008).

The elderly traditionally volunteer in local institutions such as schools, libraries, churches, and nursing homes. They also participate in programs geared toward transportation, food, and childcare services (Scheibel, 1996). Though the number of hours elderly volunteers work varies significantly, rates of participation are high. Estimates indicate as many as 52 percent of older people perform some kind of volunteer service, and the number of elderly people volunteering is on the rise (Bradley, 2000; Dye, Goodman, Roth, & Jensen, 1973; Silva & Thomas, 2006). This is good because elderly volunteers report that they are happier than those who do not volunteer, have better life satisfaction, superior health, and even live longer (see Kahana, Bhatta, Lovegreen, Kahana, & Midlarsky, 2013; Kim & Ferraro, 2013; Morrow-Howell, Hinterlong, Rozario, & Tang, 2003; Post & Neimark, 2006).

One volunteer program available for elders in the U. S. is the Senior Companion Program (SCP). Existing under Senior Corps, the SCP is a branch of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency that connects Americans to volunteer opportunities. The larger SCP has smaller SCPs that operate through local Area Agencies on Aging (AAA), but any nonprofit institution can apply for funding and operate a SCP. Volunteers help qualified clients with simple daily tasks. This includes shopping, paying bills, light housekeeping, and respite services for family caregivers. More significant in terms of activity perspectives, volunteers provide clients and themselves with needed social interaction. (CNCS, 2014).

Examining the experiences of elderly volunteers, such as those working for SCPs, can help us better understand why actively engaging with others is important as we age. It allows us to explore whether volunteer programs for the elderly promote rituals that transform an elderly person's identity as a volunteer. It can also help us better understand how to get and keep senior volunteers. This article uses qualitative data gathered from phenomenologically based in-depth interviews of SCP volunteers. It reviews their perspectives of volunteer work while revealing some of the benefits of volunteerism. It also considers transformative rituals within a SCP and issues of recruitment and retention. Research questions guiding this work included: Why do elders decide to volunteer in the first place? Why is volunteer activity important? How often do volunteers perceive themselves to be engaging in volunteerism? What does it mean to be a volunteer? Do volunteer programs engage in rituals that promote a self-awareness of volunteer status? Other questions focused on recruitment and retention, such as: What might attract more volunteers to the program? What can individual SCPs do to maintain adequate levels of volunteers?

Theoretical Background

Structural ritualization theory (SRT) was used to explore various aspects of volunteer behaviors. SRT provides a social psychological foundation for discussing taken-for-granted ritualized symbolic practices (RSPs) of everyday life (Knottnerus, 1997). The theory implies symbolic rituals are a highly relevant aspect of interaction, especially when individuals are embedded in a larger context, such as an organization. Symbolic rituals shape thoughts and help to create social structure. Four RSP factors facilitate social structure--repetitiveness, salience, homologousness, and resources. …

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