A Pilot Study of a Tailored Community Volunteer Intervention for Isolated Older Individuals
volunteerism, social isolation
Background/Aims: Socially isolated older individuals show greatly diminished quality of life, poorer outcomes with chronic medical conditions, greater and accelerated cognitive decline and a higher incidence of depression. Social isolation is also one of the strongest known predictors of mortality, with risks equivalent to or greater than well-known risk factors such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and obesity. Observational evidence suggests community volunteer work could help reduce these negative consequences, but a large-scale intervention study of volunteer work tailored to the interests and values of each individual has not been conducted to date and the feasibility of conducting such a trial has never been assessed.
Methods: We conducted a small, prospective, single-cohort pilot study of community volunteer work tailored to each participant’s interests in order to test its feasibility for use in a fully powered clinical trial. Eligible patients were > 60 years old and scored > 40 on the UCLA Loneliness Scale (Version 3). Participants were interviewed at baseline, and several relevant volunteer opportunities were identified (using volunteermatch.com and local resources) from which participants selected the most appealing opportunities. Study staff handled all arrangements for initiating the participant’s volunteer work, and participants were asked to volunteer at least 4 hours per week. Participants were assessed after 2 and 4 months for social isolation, mood, self-esteem, quality of life and positive states of mind.
Results: Of 12 patients who enrolled in the study, 8 participated in the volunteer intervention. All participants had positive experiences, and almost all continued working in their volunteer positions after study closeout. Significant within-person improvements were identified in UCLA Loneliness (-5.1, P < 0.03) and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (+3.4, P < 0.01) at 4 months; nonsignificant improvements were observed in all other measures. Qualitative data revealed universally positive experiences, with some participants expressing profoundly beneficial changes in quality of life.
Conclusion: A community volunteer intervention, tailored to each individual’s interests and values, was found to be feasible for testing in a future clinical trial, and the intervention appears promising. Several important lessons were learned; recruitment and other challenges were noted, and methods for addressing these difficulties were identified.
Avins AL, Altschuler A. A pilot study of a tailored community volunteer intervention for isolated older individuals. J Patient Cent Res Rev. 2016;3:169.