Opportunities to Improve Survey Measures of Late-Life Disability: Part II - Workshop Summary. Measuring Participation/Engagement


Dr. Janet Fast provided an overview of measurement of participation and engagement by older adults. A wide range of approaches have been used to measure whether, and the extent to which, an older person is participating in those activities believed to contribute to aging well. In many national surveys, as well as smaller scale studies, respondents are asked directly whether they participate in a particular activity or set of activities, usually within a specified time frame, such as the last week, month or year. For example, the following examples from Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey illustrate typical question structure:

  • In the past 12 months, did you help anyone by doing domestic work, home maintenance or outdoor work? (GSS 12)
  • In the past 12 months, did you go to a cultural or artistic festival? (GSS 12)
  • In the past 12 months, did you do unpaid volunteer work for any organization? (GSS 17)
  • In the past 12 months, were you a member or participant in a political party or group? (GSS 17)

While such questions may provide a sense of the rates of participation in activities of interest, they are not good measures of the intensity of participation which is likely more relevant if one is interested in engagement in activities that are believed to promote aging well. Estimates of the amount of time spent participating in the activities are preferable for this purpose.

There has been a great deal of attention paid by those in the time use research community to how best to measure how people spend their time. Numerous approaches have been tested over the years--observation, shadowing, random time sampling, time diary and stylized methods among others. The latter two are the most common and the general consensus in the time use research community is that the diary method is preferred, especially when the purpose is to get an accurate picture of daily time allocation patterns of a population or sub-population.

Stylized estimates are used most often when the purpose is to determine how much time is usually spent on a single, specific activity. The following excerpt from the 1996 and 2001 Census of Canada illustrates the typical nature of stylized time use questions:

Last week how many hours did you spend doing the following activities:
  • Doing unpaid housework, yard work or home maintenance for members of this household or others?
  • Looking after one or more of your own children, or the children of others, without pay?
  • Providing unpaid care or assistance to one or more seniors?

The stylized approach is likely simpler than a time use diary, but it has been criticized for its lack of accuracy. Research comparing estimates from diary and stylized methods suggest that stylized questions tend to produce under-estimates of time spent on frequent activities and over-estimates of time spent on infrequent or episodic ones. Accuracy also tends to deteriorate the longer the period over which the respondent is asked to recall. A modified version of the stylized approach was developed for use in Cycle 16 of the General Social Survey which focused on help provided to seniors. It comprised a series of questions intended to enhance the accuracy of respondents’ recall of their caregiving work.

  • In the past 12 months, have you assisted anyone with a health or physical limitation by [providing personal care such as assistance with bathing, toileting, care of toenails/ fingernails, brushing teeth, shampooing and hair care or dressing]?
  • What was the reason for providing assistance with these activities?

–»Because of their long-term health or physical limitations

  • During the time that you assisted [care receiver], how often did you assist them with these tasks? Was it daily, at least once a week, at least once a month, less than once a month?
  • What is the number of times [daily/weekly/monthly] that you assisted [care receiver] with these tasks?
  • About how much time do you spend assisting [care receiver] with these tasks on each occasion?

Time diaries have become standard elements of the national statistics gathering systems in most developed, as well as many developing, countries around the world. They share common features but are implemented in slightly different ways in different countries. In Canada and the United States, for example, the data are collected over the telephone using a 24 hour recall diary. The following represents the typical structure of the interview in the Canadian survey:

  • On [designated day] at 4 a.m. what were you doing?
  • And then what did you do?
  • When did you start?
  • How long did you spend on this activity? When did this end?

In most countries, though, paper diaries are dropped off to the respondent who then records his/her activities, often for specified intervals (e.g., 15 minutes), during the designated period (from one to seven days), at the end of which the diaries are picked up. An interview in which basic demographic and other relevant information is obtained often is conducted when the diary is picked up or dropped off. Surveys also vary across countries with respect to the number of household members from whom a diary is obtained, and what contextual information is requested about the activity episodes (e.g., where they took place, who the respondent was with at the time, for whom the activity was done, secondary activities the respondent was doing simultaneously, etc.).

Time diaries are not without their problems, however. Both the incidence and duration of infrequent and episodic activities, such as volunteer work and caregiving, tend to be under-represented when diaries are collected for only one or two days. This is what led to development of the modified stylized approach for the survey on social support described above.

Based on participation and engagement data, Dr. Fast also presented evidence that most Canadians are reasonably active and engaged, and becoming more so. She found, for example, that seniors remain engaged in productive activity into later life, indeed appearing to make a partial substitution of one form of productive engagement for another on retirement. Further, both passive and active leisure were found to increase across time for men and women of all birth cohorts and ages, with increases in passive leisure smaller for more recent cohorts and active leisure consistently greater than passive leisure.

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