The purpose of this descriptive qualitative secondary analysis study was to examine the health perceptions, physical activity capability, and coping strategies of older adults volunteering to build a house for Habitat for Humanity. Demographic and health data were collected and semi-structured interviews were conducted. Forty older adults, ages 57 to 88, were enrolled. The majority of these older volunteers had physical problems, but they perceived their health as being excellent or good, and remained physically active despite physical limitations. Coping strategies of older volunteers included limiting or changing types of activities. Physical activity assessment and promoting positive coping strategies for older volunteers with physical limitations should be considered by healthcare providers. Additional education may be necessary to strengthen older volunteers’ ability in early detection of health decline. Ways that nurses and healthcare teams can encourage older adult volunteering should be explored.
The growth of older Americans aged 65 years or older will reach 81 million by 2050 (The U.S. Census Bureau, 2008). An increasing aging population increases demand on the healthcare system and social services. With increasing longevity comes the potential for growth of volunteering among older adults in order to improve quality of life and enhance physical and psychological well-being. Volunteering among older adults prevents declining physical health and functioning, promotes psychological well-being, decreases mortality, and provides socioeconomic benefits for communities. In the U.S., Americans of all ages contribute 8.1 billion hours annually. This was equal to 158 billion dollars in economic benefits in 2007 (The World Volunteer Web, 2008). Nearly 24% of volunteering was shared by elders (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010).
Health is a major concern of older volunteers. Physical health and functional ability of older adults affect decision making on volunteering (Fischer, Mueller, & Cooper, 1991; Fischer & Schaffer, 1993; Herzog & Morgan, 1993). Health status is related to the number of hours volunteered (Choi, 2003). For example, volunteering 100 hours per year, or two hours a week, was found to have benefits for older adults related to daily functioning, self-rated health, and self-rated depression (Martin, 2004). Although older adults can have physical limitations, older volunteers perceive themselves as healthier in physical functioning than those elders who are nonvolunteers (Shmotkin, Blumstein, & Modan, 2003). Volunteer work also can help prevent older adults from declining physical health and functioning (Lum & Lightfoot, 2005), enhance subjective well-being (Baker, Cahalin, Gesrt, & Burr, 2005), and decrease mortality (Harris & Thoresen, 2005).
There is a paucity of literature on how older volunteers rate their health, what types of physical activity older volunteers engage in, and how older volunteers handle physically demanding volunteer activities such as Habitat for Humanity, which requires physically challenging activities. Therefore, the purpose of this descriptive qualitative secondary analysis study was to examine health perception, physical activity capability, and coping strategies of older adults volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. The research questions guiding the study are: (1) How do these older volunteers perceive their health conditions? (2) What kinds of physical activity do those volunteers engage in to help them stay active? (3) How do these older volunteers cope with their health limitations while volunteering?
A number of studies have addressed older adults’ health related to volunteering. In this study health perception, physical activity, and coping with health limitations among older volunteers will be explored.
Health Perception of Older Adults
Health perception of older adults varies. It is related to activities of daily living, health problems, housing conditions, financial status, number of visits to the hospital, and numbers of diagnoses (Jarallah & Al Shammari, 1999). Additionally, there are gender differences in health perception. Tobiasz-Adamczyk and Brzyski (2007) studied functional ability in performing daily activities of older persons with ischemic heart disease (IHD) at time intervals over 12 years. They reported that female older adults with IHD showed higher scores on their functional ability than those in the male group. On the other hand, Yael (2007) conducted a study with older adults and found that males rated their health higher than females. The author explained that women rated both severe and moderate illness as poor health status whereas men only perceived life-threatening illness as an evidence of deteriorating health. Similarly, Jarallah and Al Shammari (1999) found that male older adults perceived themselves as healthier than older women did. Overall, more than 70% of older adults perceived themselves as in good health. They also reported that there were no differences of health perception between older adults who live in rural or urban areas.
Physical Activity of Older Adults
Loss of strength and function such as difficulty walking long distances, climbing stairs, carrying groceries, and so on, is associated with the aging process and physical inactivity. However, data support using regular exercise as a way to deter functional decline (Brach, Simonsick, Kritchevsky, Yaffe, & Newman, 2004). Regular physical activity reduced the risk of many chronic diseases and falls in older adults (Kruger, Ham, & Sanker, 2008). Woolf, Reese, Mason, Beaird, Tudor-Locke, and Vaughan (2008) examined physical activity and risk factors for chronic disease among women. They found that the more physical activity women had, the fewer the risk factors for chronic diseases. It was also reported that physical and cognitive activity increase for four to eight months after participating in volunteer activities (Fried et al., 2004).