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Civic participation allows older adults to keep active and socially engaged

Serrat R, Scharf T, Villar F, Gomez C. Fifty-five years of research into older people’s civic participation: Recent trends, future directions The Gerontologist. 2019.

Review question

•    What is the research evidence concerning older people’s civic participation?


      Civic participation is defined as the way we involve ourselves within the community. It is active engagement that focuses on the common good.

      In recent years, civic participation by older adults has emerged as an important topic for public policy and gerontology. International organizations like the United Nations have prioritized civic participation as a way to promote active and successful aging.

      Although existing systematic reviews have explored topics like the motivations for and barriers to volunteering among older adults, no review has reviewed the overall knowledge relating to civic participation.

      This scoping review aims to critically analyze existing knowledge concerning older adults’ civic participation, pinpoint knowledge gaps, and propose news directions for future research.

How the review was done

      Review authors searched four major academic databases in April 2017 to retrieve peer-reviewed articles for this review. The search was updated in May 2018 to add more recent papers.

      Any empirical, review, or conceptual papers written in English were eligible for inclusion.

      The initial search identified 1,178 papers, of which 429 were included in the final review.

      This work was supported by the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness’ the University of Barcelona in collaboration with “La Caixa” Bank Foundation; and the European Cooperation in Science and Technology program. No conflicts of interest were reported.

What the researchers found

      Review findings were divided into four categories based on the type of civic participation. Type 1 was social participation (individual forms), type 2 was social participation (collective forms), type 3 was political participation (individual forms), and type 4 was political participation (collective forms).

      An overwhelming majority (83.4%) of papers focused on type 2 of civic participation.

      Twenty-six papers addressed the first type of civic participation – social participation (individual forms). Most of these studies focused on helping behaviours outside the family or informal volunteering, with some also addressing financial donations to charities or nongovernmental organizations. Within the context of individual social participation, most papers explored older people’s motivations, human and social capital, transition into retirement, or their previous experience with the activity. A few papers also looked at the outcomes of participation with regards to psychological wellbeing, health, and mortality risk.

      Three hundred and fifty-eight papers examined the second type of civic participation – social participation (collective forms), referring generally to participation in formal volunteering. These studies examined a variety of volunteering organizations, including health, educational, religious, social, community, and entrepreneurial. The studies were split almost equally between those discussing precursors to and outcomes of participation. Factors associated with volunteering were found to include human and social capital resources, personality variables, and frequent engagement in other active aging activities. Barriers to volunteering ranged from financial costs to age discrimination. One hundred and twenty-five of the studies in this category focused on the effect of volunteering on variables like physical and mental health, cognitive function, mortality risk, well-being, physical activity, healthcare usage, or productive activities.

      Forty-eight papers addressed the third type of civic participation – political participation (individual forms). Most of these papers focused on behaviours such as voting, contacting representatives, writing letters or articles with political intent, signing petitions, and donating money to political organizations.

      Fifty-seven papers examined the fourth type of civic participation – political participation (collective forms). Most of these studies looked at participation in political organizations or in social movements. Others addressed volunteering for political campaigns or participation in protest activities.


      This review served to highlight the extent, range, and characteristics of research in the field of civic participation. In doing so, it confirms the key role of civic participation as a means for older adults to stay active and socially engaged, and to have their voices heard and represented in the political landscape.

Related Topics


Cognitive function
Mental processes, including thinking, learning and remembering.
Systematic review
A comprehensive evaluation of the available research evidence on a particular topic.

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