Share Your Experience and I’ll Lend You My Ear: Study Shows how Older Adults Benefit from Mentoring

Summarized Jean Rhodes

The rewards that mentors receive are rarely considered in stories on mentoring. Instead, the process tends to be conveyed in terms of the adult selflessly giving to the mentee in a selfless, one-sided relationship. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the mentor gets relatively little from the relationship. In a new study (excerpted below) psychologist Zucchero, Renee’ describes the benefits that seniors derived from an intergenerational service learning course. Her focus group of older volunteers highlights how meaningful such ties can be, and how valuable it can be to have someone listen to their life stories. Other studies have found three outcomes  for older adults: those related to health and well-being, reduced isolation, and a renewed sense of worth (Springate, Atkinson, & Martin, 2008).

The following sections are excerpted from Zucchero’s study in Gerontology & Geriatrics Education, Vol 31(4), Oct, 2010. pp. 383-402.

“There is a large literature about the beneficial impact of volunteering on older adults. In a meta-analysis, Wheeler, Gorey, and Greenblatt (1998) concluded that older adults’ sense of well-being is considerably strengthened through volunteering. More recently, longitudinal research determined that volunteering among older adults increased life satisfaction (Thoits & Hewitt, 2001Van Willigen, 2000), self-reported health (Lum & Lightfoot, 2005Thoits & Hewitt, 2001Van Willigen, 2000), happiness (Thoits & Hewitt, 2001), self-esteem (Thoits & Hewitt, 2001), and reduced depressive symptoms (Lum & Lightfoot, 2005Musick & Wilson, 2003Thoits & Hewitt, 2001). Theoretically, volunteering during older adulthood is consistent with the developmental task of generativity (Morrow-Howell, 2006) and the activity theory of aging (Hinterlong & Williamson, 2006). Likewise, motivations for volunteering in older adulthood have been noted: giving back to society or generativity (Bradley, 1999Gottlieb & Gillispie, 2008) and altruism (Gottlieb & Gillispie, 2008Morrow-Howell, 2006). Finally, Morrow-Howell, Hong, and Tang (2009) reported that contributing to others and the community was the most commonly described benefits of volunteering; volunteers believed their efforts made a difference in people’s lives.

Reminiscence and life review in older adults

According to developmental theorists (e.g., Butler, Erikson), life review is a normative process in older adulthood. Sometimes, the terms life review and reminiscence are used interchangeably, though a distinction can be made. Life review is a structured, systematic, evaluative process of a person’s entire life history, including positive and negative events (Bohlmeijer, Roemer, Cuijpers, & Smit, 2007Butler, 2009Haber, 2006). Yet there is limited agreement on how to conduct a life review (e.g., type of questions, interview frequency and length, interviewer training; Haber, 2006). Guided autobiography is one way of obtaining structured life histories centered on major, commonly experienced themes, such as an account of major branching points, family, work, and health (Birren & Birren, 1996). Participants write about their lives and share their stories in small groups. Through this process a person’s life becomes more integrated and acceptable (Birren & Birren, 1996). Birren and Deutchmann (1991) described positive outcomes of guided autobiography including a greater sense of meaning in life.

Reminiscence involves a more spontaneous, random recall of one’s life history (Butler, 2009) that is more descriptive in nature (Haber, 2006) and focuses on pleasurable memories (Haight & Burnside, 1993). Bohlmeijer et al. (2007) conducted a meta-analysis that assessed the effects of reminiscence on the psychological well-being of older adults, finding a moderate influence of reminiscence on life satisfaction and emotional well-being. Similarly, a meta-analysis by Bohlmeijer, Smit, and Cuijpers (2003) found a clinically significant effect of reminiscence and life review in reducing depressive symptoms in older adults. Life review for older adults boosts emotional and psychological health, and self-esteem (Butler, 2009). Intergenerational life review experiences, such as that described in the current study, are sometimes conducted by students as part of their educational experience, benefiting both generations (Haber, 2006).

In summary, intergenerational programs engage different generations in a mutually beneficial, planned experience. To date, most intergenerational program research has focused on the change in younger persons’ attitudes about older persons. Moreover, the research that describes older adult experience of intergenerational programs typically uses a sample of older adults who are in poor health, or engages children or adolescents as the service recipients. Likewise, the service-learning literature tends to focus on the outcomes for young people who volunteer, rather than the persons being served. Yet, there is a robust literature that supports the benefits of volunteering for older adults. Finally, a structured life review process may positively influence older adults. Hence, the current study explored the experience of healthy older adult volunteers within an intergenerational, service-learning program that utilizes a semistructured life review. Specifically, the researcher was interested in the beneficial aspects of participation and the volunteers’ perception of the relationship with the students…


The relationship volunteers developed with their students was a significant component of the project experience. Eighty-six percent described a reciprocal relationship with their partners. For example, a participant stated: “We talked back and forth … and got completely off the topic every once in a while because we were kind of enjoying the conversation. … She seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say and I was always interested in what she was doing.” Also, the majority indicated they shared more than they expected to share, implying they developed trust with their students and were comfortable in their interactions, as previously described. One participant said, “I was more vulnerable with some stuff I told her and I don’t think I even thought of that ahead of time. I was more open than I thought I would be.” The typical context in which volunteers described the higher-than-expected level of disclosure was in response to a question about how their project experience was different than expected. However, a few participants discussed this in terms of what they found meaningful about the experience.

The significance of the relationship was not a surprise. The researcher designed one half of the group session to explore the co-mentoring relationship, based upon the prominence of this theme in the student project outcomes (Zucchero, 20082009in press). Nonetheless, participants spontaneously described the importance of the association with the student when it was not the intended focal point of discussion. For example, the majority, in response to a question about the most important benefit or meaningful aspect of participation, indicated the relationship or interaction with the student was most important. The significance of the relationship was present in the conversation of each focus group, although the specific nature varied from group to group. Some described the interaction itself; others discussed the mutuality; others told of their stories being heard. This finding is consistent with earlier qualitative research in which older adults identified the importance of the relationship in their intergenerational experiences with children (Fees & Bradshaw, 2003Larkin, Sandler, & Mahler, 2005) and college students (Dorfman et al., 2002). The current results are also congruent with a qualitative study in which active older adults noted the importance of the mutuality of their intergenerational relationships with college students (Wakefield, 2002) and a study involving frail older adults who reported a reciprocal relationship with their students (Underwood & Dorfman, 2006). Similarly, 64% of nursing home residents who participated in a service-learning program with college students reported companionship was an important component of their experience (Greene, 1998). This finding is also in agreement with previous reports of the student experience of intergenerational programs (Breytspraak et al., 2008Hamon & Koch, 1993).

Transformed expectations about students

More often than not, the high level of student investment surprised volunteers. Volunteers expected students to be interested solely in completing their course assignment, rather than in engaging in dialogue with them. A participant stated, “Maybe I expected them to be more task oriented. And she seemed more like, ‘This is a pleasant conversation to have,’ as she did her task.”

One half reported a changed view of younger adults. Unexpectedly, this theme was described by volunteers with extensive experience with young adults, as well as those with limited experience. For example, one participant who had limited experience with younger adults stated generally, “It made me appreciate youth more.” More specifically, another with much experience with college-aged persons indicated: “young people, they aren’t really as bad, you know sometimes you hear stories about the stupid things they do. I don’t think we hear enough about the really smart kids who are willing to take the time to do [things like] this.” Finally, another participant who works with college students stated, “What I came out of this is that, we probably will leave the world, in many ways, to a wonderful new generation … Renewed hope for those coming along.” These results are congruent with previous studies in which older adults reported their intergenerational experience with college students (i.e., Underwood & Dorfman, 2006) and children (i.e., Fees & Bradshaw, 2003) to increase their understanding of the younger generation and their experiences. Hence, the current study reinforces the belief that intergenerational programs may result in changed attitudes about a younger generation.

A prominent theme was older participants serving as role models for their student partners or teaching them about life, consistent with their role as a mentor providing service. This theme generally occurred in response to a question about the volunteer’s most important contributions to his/her student. One participant said:

I hope it could be in life [experience] itself. There are good times and bad times. You know, hearing somebody else’s story after they’ve lived quite a few years, I hope she learns. I hope that if she ever has a hard time she’ll think, “everybody has and they can get through them.”