Faculty Publication Spotlight: Matz-Costa and Assessing Engagement in Older Adults

christina-matz-costa-513x336In this first installment of Innovate’s series highlighting research publications from faculty members at the Boston College School of Social Work, we discuss The Meaning and Measurement of Productive Engagement in Later Life, from Professor Christina Matz-Costa and colleagues. The paper was first published in Social Indicators Research.

The Issue: There exists a large body of research-based evidence showing the benefits of productive activity (the involvement in roles that contribute to a societal good in some way, such as work, volunteering, informal helping, or caregiving) on health and wellbeing in later life.

For the most part, these large population-based studies have shown a link between the quantity of engagement, such as the number of, or amount of time, spent in various roles, and health and wellbeing. They’ve also shown that promoting such engagement in later life can also have positive implications on a macro scale, providing significant social and economic benefits to families and communities.

The Idea: In a previous paper, BCSSW Assistant Professor Christina Matz-Costa and colleagues took a different tactic in measuring the effects of engagement in later life, finding evidence that the quality of the engagement was important. In some cases, if subjective quality was low, individuals actually tended to be worse off in terms of wellbeing than if they were not engaged at all.

Given this important finding, Matz-Costa and her team decided to delve deeper into the literature on the quality of the engagement in later life. As they moved forward, they realized that there lacked a good measure that could be used across diverse productive activities.

The team then tasked themselves with the job of coming up with such a measure, toward establishing practical scales for future use. The end goal: to be able to effectively measure the quality of productive engagement for the aging. Doing so could have important implications for developing new and more effective interventions for older populations.

The Findings: For this project, the team used Rasch Modeling, a specialty of team member and Lynch School Professor Larry Ludlow, to develop the measure. The team:

  • Developed an overall definition of quality of engagement.
  • Generated the items comprising the measure based on theory and feedback from focus groups made up of older adults. These individuals, who resided in community settings, were asked to answer questions pertaining to how engaged they felt when participating in a particular activity.
  • Tested and tweaked the measure’s items based on feedback from these focus groups.
  • Conducted a final survey sample from four categories of productive activity : 120 paid workers, 120 volunteers, 120 caregivers, and 120 informal helpers. From this data, the team then constructed the Productive Engagement Portfolio (PEP), which consists of scales designed to measure varying degrees of quality of engagement. 

The Next Steps: Future studies will serve to perfect the PEP; already Ludlow has received a grant from the Boston College Institute on Aging to make revisions to the scales, and test them in a broader sample, including individuals of all ages.

Matz-Costa is also Principal Investigator on a National Institute on Aging (NIA)-funded pilot project of the Boston Roybal Center for Active Lifestyle Interventions where she is developing and testing an ecologically-sensitive intervention which aims to increase both quantity and quality of engagement among older adults. BC Social Work professors Jim Lubben, Erika Sabbath, and Jessica Black and the Center on Aging & Work’s Jacquelyn James are all taking part in this initiative.

The Takeaway: Matz-Costa expects that her work developing the PEP will lead to innovative interventions that facilitate health-promoting engagement among older adults. The development of these kinds of practical solutions could, in turn, lead to improved quality of life.

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