Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


The Elderly in America: Volunteerism and Neighborhood in Seattle

Harley Carl Schreck
Lanham, MD: University Press in America
ISBN: 0 7616 0254 1 (pb); 0 7618 0253 3 (hb)
$29.00 (pb); $48.00 (hb)
x + 138 pp.

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This research monograph is likely to be of limited interest to sociologists. It reports the authors' doctoral research on provision of voluntary services to older people in Seattle in 1982-83. The study is primarily about volunteering to people considered 'needy' and the motivations of church members to provide volunteer help, rather than a study of 'the elderly'. Hence, the title of the book is somewhat misleading.

Volunteerism is defined as providing one's skills or time in service to another person or group without expectation of direct reward and with no legal, biological or economic obligations to do so. The key concerns of the book are to understand what social and cultural forces influence people to volunteer.

The book is based on an urban anthropological study of a particular type of volunteering, namely volunteers organized through a church organization called Volunteer Chore Ministry, which aimed to provide volunteer help to needy people through mobilizing local churches. Each church had a volunteer church co-ordinator whose role was to find appropriate volunteers, mainly from their church, to provide help, such as housework, shopping and transportation.

The late 1980s and 1990s have witnessed a growing political rhetoric which supports voluntary provision and cutbacks in state provided social services. In Britain, this was a key policy goal of the NHS and Community Care Act implemented in 1993. Similarly, in the US volunteers have been seen as a cost-saving alternative to government social programmes. This research indirectly highlights the social biases associated with reliance on volunteers and the perverse effects of such a policy.

The volunteers in this programme could decide whether or not to provide services and if so how much to provide. The research shows that volunteers are more likely to provide services to people they consider are 'helpless' and morally worthy. Volunteers did not provide services or withdrew support from people who they considered were responsible for their situation or who were in any way morally reprehensible, for example, alcoholics. Volunteers provided most services to people like themselves, who because of ill-health or disability were considered needy. There was a bias towards providing services to people with less material resources, and with no potential kin carers available. Such conditions often resulted in friendship relations between the volunteer and client.

The book is primarily a descriptive account of the author's research, but also provides a theoretical discussion of volunteerism. The author favours an exchange theory framework in which the factors influencing volunteer provision relate to perceived costs and rewards to the volunteer and perceived affinity with the client, in terms of religion, cultural and social background. Rewards to volunteers were often spiritual or the recognition by others of their good deeds. The terminology used by the Volunteer Chore Ministry was the provision of help to the 'frail elderly', which embodied both helplessness and worthiness.

The book is unsuccessful in its attempt to draw conclusions about strengthening the urban community through volunteerism as a way of empowering strangers to help other strangers. Unfortunately, it adds little to our knowledge of either urban sociology or the sociology of ageing. It reaffirms this reviewer's scepticism about the feasibility of relying on volunteers for the provision of equitable and effective services.

Sara Arber
University of Surrey

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996