Volunteer and healthy ageing: the case of mentoring disadvantaged youth

In this blog, Dr. Giovanni Aresi and Dr. Raven H. Weaver will discuss the societal benefits of volunteering among older adults, specifically reflecting on being a mentor for disadvantaged youth. Although mentoring has been considered as a positive youth development intervention, there has been much less attention on the effects on older volunteer mentors’ well-being.

Healthy ageing as a key priority for our society

Individuals are living longer than ever before, posing a challenge in respect of increased risk of developing physical and mental illness, but also creating new opportunities for older adults to remain socially engaged with and contribute to society. The WHO defines healthy ageing as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age”.1 Having the capacity to remain engaged allows for lifelong learning, growth, agency/decision-making, and development of relationships – all of which contribute to society. Volunteering offers an opportunity for social contributions and engagement in late life, thus potentially playing a protective role for their physical and mental health. Intergenerational interactions promote individual and social development, improve health and well-being, and combat ageism. These interactions foster mutual understanding and appreciation of diversity that exists within any generation.2

Volunteering in old age and well-being

Volunteering – whether or not mediated by a formal volunteering organisation – refers to any helping behaviours that people undertake of their free will and without pay, to people outside of their household. About one in five older Europeans (age 50+) volunteer.3 Volunteer opportunities may involve fund-raising for an environmental or social cause, teaching a class to help refugees improve their language skills, or support disadvantaged youth at risk of poor educational outcomes.

A vast literature confirms that volunteering benefits the well-being, health, and longevity of volunteers. While volunteering generally has positive effects on the volunteer, such as social recognition and self-esteem, this is especially true among older people4. Volunteering provides older adults with a positive social role, protects them against potential losses (e.g., work, active parenthood, age-related disability), and promotes a positive sense of self and well-being. Various health outcomes have been associated with volunteering among older adults, including reduced mortality, increased physical function, increased levels of self-rated health, reduced depressive symptoms, and increased life satisfaction. Volunteering is an opportunity to socialise, which may reduce the risk of social isolation and loneliness. Mentoring for disadvantaged youth is a particular form of volunteering, though it has been rarely examined from the perspective of the adult.

A mentor and his mentee

The case of mentoring disadvantaged youth

Formal mentoring programmes facilitate “a relationship […] between an older or more experienced non-parental individual who provides guidance and support to a younger or less experienced mentee or protégé over time” (p. 295).5 Programmes generally focus on socially disadvantaged children and adolescents. Typically, mentors are trained volunteers matched with mentees by an organization/programme. Mentors and mentees meet periodically at school or in other public places for a period of time, ranging from a few months to several years. While there is a large body of research that has demonstrated the effectiveness of mentoring programmes for youth as mentees6, less research has been conducted to examine positive effects on mentors.

A study examined the benefits of volunteering and found that mentors of all ages are motivated by the desire to express important values and engage in a learning experience that helps them better understand themselves and others.7 This aligns with earlier research on the benefits of volunteering among older adults mentoring at-risk youth, in that the experience allowed mentors to renew positive emotions and reinforce meaning in their lives.8 To gain a better understanding about the benefits of mentoring for older adults, here are some intriguing questions to consider:

  • What factors contribute to older adults’ decision to volunteer as a mentor?
  • What expectations do older adults have about what they will learn from the mentoring experience?
  • How do mentors express and put into practice their core values?
  • How can mentoring influence older adults physical, mental, and social well-being?

To fully answer these questions, further researchers is needed, using a mix between quantitative and qualitative inquiry. Reflecting on the research experience with mentors of the ‘Programma Mentore’9, a school-based mentoring programme based in four cities in Italy, Giovanni shares his initial insights.

Some reflections on ‘Programma Mentore’

Many volunteers in this mentoring programme are 60 years and older. Mentors generally enter the relationship with a strong desire to make a positive difference in the lives of young people. They report motivations related to solidarity and helping others who are less fortunate, which reflect strong values revolving around social generativity towards youth. Mentors also report they learn from their relationship with mentees. For example, they learn things about the realities of current youth that can in turn be applied to benefit interactions with other children in their life, such as grandchildren. Furthermore, mentoring requires interacting with a range of different people, including fellow mentors, teachers and programme staff, all of which foster social relationships and combat isolation. In other words, due to its relational nature, mentoring can have important implications for mentors’ psychological and social well-being.

Reframing mentoring as intergenerational engagement

As we have seen, intentionally bringing together different generations can be mutually beneficial. Therefore, Raven offers a broader perspective on intergenerational engagement programmes.

In her Gerontology course at Washington State University, Raven implemented a Service Learning component where students designed intergenerational programming with residents of a senior living community and students participating in an afterschool program. Mid-semester, the COVID-19 pandemic halted students’ efforts. Suddenly, from a distance, students had another unique opportunity for intergenerational connection. They identified and developed opportunities to support the immediate need to practice social distancing (e.g., foster correspondence with pen pals, provide exercises, music and movie playlists, offer modified bingo and trivia) to share with the Activity Coordinators at local senior living communities.

Taken together, there are many opportunities to promote social inclusion and foster civic engagement across the lifespan. Mentoring and intergenerational engagement programmes represent promising practices in this respect. As we continue to explore this uncharted territory and find a new normal after the COVID-19 pandemic, we will need to find innovative ways to create and foster intergenerational relationships to address immediate community needs. Volunteering as a mentor has the potential to protect against potential losses, find purpose in life, and promote healthy ageing, as volunteering positively effects the well-being of older adults.

About the authors:

Giovanni Aresi is a postdoctoral researcher in Community Health Psychology at Catholic University of Milan, Italy. His research focuses on the ways in which psychological, social and cultural influences shape young people’s health behaviours. More recently, he has been studying the effectiveness of a school-based mentoring programme, and the impact on volunteer mentors’ well-being and the broader community. His research interests are mixed methods research, cross-cultural research and participatory action research. You can contact him at giovanni.aresi[at]unicatt.it

Raven H. Weaver is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development and Prevention Science at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, USA. Her research focuses on older adults and families, specifically the experiences of older adults living with unmet needs and their use of formal and informal long-term services and supports. The broader research orientation of her work centres around vulnerable and near-risk populations (e.g., low-income, rural-dwelling, insufficient care). She has been involved in intergenerational research, and frequently incorporates intergenerational service learning projects in her university course on Gerontology.

  1. World Health Organization. Ageing and life-course. Available from: https://www.who.int/ageing/healthy-ageing/en/. []
  2. Andreoletti, C. and J.L. Howard, Bridging the generation gap: Intergenerational service-learning benefits young and old. Gerontology & Geriatrics Education, 2018. 39(1): p. 46-60. []
  3. Charities Aid Foundation, World Giving Index – 2018 Report. 2018. Available from: https://www.cafonline.org/about-us/publications/2018-publications/caf-world-giving-index-2018. []
  4. Anderson, N.D., et al., The benefits associated with volunteering among seniors: A critical review and recommendations for future research. Psychological Bulletin, 2014. 140(6): p. 1505-1533. []
  5. Kanchewa, S.S., S.E.O. Schwartz, and J.E. Rhodes, Mentoring Disadvantaged Youth, in The SAGE handbook of mentoring, D.A. Clutterbuck, et al., Editors. 2017, SAGE. []
  6. Raposa, E.B., et al., The Effects of Youth Mentoring Programs: A Meta-analysis of Outcome Studies. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 2019. 48(3): p. 423-443. []
  7. Caldarella, P., et al., School-based mentoring: A study of volunteer motivations and benefits. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 2010. 2(2): p. 199-216. []
  8. Larkin, E., S.E. Sadler, and J. Mahler, Benefits of Volunteering for Older Adults Mentoring At-Risk Youth. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 2005. 44(3-4): p. 23-37. []
  9. Aresi, G., M. De Luca, and E. Marta, Valutazione di processo di un programma di mentoring scolastico: Una rilettura in ottica di Psicologia di Comunità [Process evaluation of a school-based mentoring programme: A Community Psychology perspective]. Psicologia di Comunità, in press. []

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