On a recent morning on my way to work, I listened to an interview on NPR about a recent study on student performance, which expanded on the existing assumption that happy students are generally better students. This study showed correlation between those students with good grades and those with a sense of purpose in their lives. Michaeleen Doucleff interviewed Tania Clarke about her study of adolescent students:
DOUCLEFF: Eudaimonia - what does that mean?
CLARKE: It's about having the opportunity to understand what purpose in life feels like for you and having opportunities to cultivate your unique personal strengths and talents.
DOUCLEFF: So feeling like you're competent, functioning well and what you do matters to others. Clarke and her colleagues found that the kids who perform really well in math also had higher levels of eudaimonia, about 50% higher.
CLARKE: They have a higher sense of purpose, meaning, fulfillment and competence.
A sense of purpose - eudaimonia. Academic success, healthy relationships with others and life goals are all enhanced by it.
And it’s not just for kids.
Senior Companions are adult volunteers who are matched with older adults to provide support and help maintain their dignity and independence. Volunteers are aged 55 and above, and work with individuals who are homebound or have other special needs. Senior Companions at Benjamin Rose may be matched with an individual, or may volunteer at a community site, such as a day center or senior housing location. As volunteers, they may help with errands and light meal preparation. They participate in conversation, share in a hobby or accompany a companion on an outing. They build friendship and social connections. And they have fun.
I always know when there is a training date for the Senior Companion volunteers at Benjamin Rose Headquarters. The conference center will ring out with laughter and conversation. Whatever else is on my schedule that day, I will try to drop in on their sessions. The joy and purpose in the group is contagious.
The volunteer assignments of Senior Companions are as varied and diverse as the volunteers and participants. Some provide respite for a family caregiver, allowing them a few worry-free hours away from the day-to-day care of a loved one. Others may assist with household chores or solving a crossword puzzle. Companions also provide perspective and empathy. Several years ago, I worked with a team of Companions at the Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis who provided input on signage – including language and placement, in the geriatric clinic. Years of accompanying patients to medical appointments and assisting with directions for someone unfamiliar with the healthcare campus made them the ideal consultant for improving communication and wayfinding. How long does it take for a person with limited mobility to get from the parking lot to the front entry? The Senior Companions knew.
During the pandemic, Companions were often unable to participate in face-to-face activities at the residential facilities or day programs where they normally volunteered. So, they took up phone calls and letter-writing to help stay connected with their clients. As the pandemic waned, normal activities resumed, including those lively training sessions. But the remote outreach that began during COVID-19 continues to be part of the work they do to help keep more than 1,300 vulnerable adults connected with the community.
The story about eudaimonia reminded me of another study. The late Mary Guerriero Austrom, PhD, was a colleague on a variety of projects involving health and social supports for older adults. An active volunteer herself, in addition to being faculty at the Indiana University School of Medicine, Mary worked regularly with the local area agency on aging, the Alzheimer’s Association and Catholic Charites (the sponsor of Senior Companions in Indianapolis). She was a great advocate for persons living with dementia, and the people, including Senior Companions, who help care for them.
Mary was part of a research team that studied the impact of volunteering as a Senior Companion on the companions themselves. In a study published in Innovations in Aging for the Gerontological Society of America, she wrote, “. . . older adult volunteers indicated that they were better off as a result of the experience, and 30% indicated that they were a great deal better off. Older adult volunteers tend to have greater satisfaction in life and greater quality of life. . . Older adult volunteers also experience other benefits, such as learning new skills and expanding their leadership ability . . . a greater personal sense of purpose and accomplishment as a result of their volunteering experiences.” Senior Companion volunteers address social isolation and improve the sense of health and wellbeing of the people they serve, and also themselves.
Servant leadership. A sense of purpose. Having an impact. Making a contribution. Eudaimonia. It’s good for others. And for you.
The Senior Companion program began in 1973 as part of a national initiative to promote volunteerism among older adults. Companion volunteers receive training through the host site. They may receive a stipend for out-of-pocket expenses. The program is administered through AmeriCorps Seniors, which provides partial funding. We are one of six projects in Ohio. For more information about becoming a Senior Companion, visit our website. https://www.benrose.org/-/for-older-people-and-families/senior-companion
Want to know more?
Read the study about eudaimonia among adolescents.
Listen to the story on NPR.
Learn more about Benjamin Rose’s Senior Companion program.