Continuous Participation in Voluntary Groups as a Protective Factor for the Psychological Well-Being of Midlife and Older Adults who Develop Functional Limitations: Evidence from the National Survey of Families and Households

Emily A. Greenfield

Nadine F. Marks


Objectives. While previous studies have indicated that declining functional health is associated with individuals’ poorer psychological well-being, few studies have examined factors that can protect adults from the loss of mental health following functional decline. Guided by continuity theory, this study investigated the extent to which continuous participation in voluntary groups (recreational, religious, and/or civic) buffers individuals against the harmful psychological effects of developing functional limitations.

Methods. Longitudinal data came from 4,872 respondents ages 35 to 92 in the National Survey of Families and Households 1987-1993 who reported having no functional limitations at Time 1.

Results. Multivariate models controlling for sociodemographic factors, as well as participants’ psychological well-being at Time 1, indicated that developing functional limitations over a five-year period was associated with greater increases in depressive symptoms and lower levels of personal growth. Increases in depressive symptoms, however, were less severe among participants continuously involved in recreational groups. Additionally, the association between developing functional limitations and lower levels of personal growth did not hold for respondents who continuously participated in religious groups.

Discussion: Findings suggest that continuous participation in certain types of voluntary groups can moderate the negative effects of developing functional limitations on particular dimensions of psychological well-being.