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The Win-Win of Senior Volunteering

At a White House event on senior volunteerism and service, participants, including Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes and Senior Advisor to President Obama Valerie Jarrett, reflect on the benefits that communities and individuals receive when people volunteer.

On Wednesday July 12, 2011, I was honored to participate in a White House event on senior volunteerism and service. At the event, Melody Barnes, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, explained that seniors in service creates a “win-win” situation—communities benefit from the volunteers and the volunteers benefit from the act of serving.

Senior Corps is based on the premise that Americans 55 and older are a national resource that can be mobilized to serve communities across America.  Through the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), Foster Grandparent Program, and Senior Companion Program – Senior Corps volunteers make communities safer, stronger, and healthier; and improve the lives of millions of our most vulnerable citizens.  As Ms. Barnes put it, “Senior volunteers change communities.” 

Today, Americans over 65 represent 13% of our population.  By the year 2030, that number will be 20%.  But while some may talk about how the aging of America is a problem to be solved, we at Senior Corps believe it an opportunity for both individuals and communities.  Last year, more than 440,000 Senior Corps volunteers provided 98 million hours of service – estimated to be worth $2 billion.  Senior Corps is part of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency. The federal investment in national and community service allows our nation to address important national issues by empowering communities.

Heisung Lee of Fairfax County, VA, described how she worked with both the Fairfax County Area Agency on Aging and RSVP to create meals on wheels program that specifically serves the local Korean community. Meals on Wheels, which comes from the first Older Americans Act, represents a national consensus that all Americans have a right to food security.  However CNCS believes that communities are often best able to identify both the problems they face and the solutions that work.  That’s what Heisung Lee did in creating the Korean Meals on Wheels program for Fairfax County. 

National and community service is about investing in our communities so they can identify and solve their most important challenges. In her opening remarks at the event, Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama, explained to the group of senior volunteers, “Your work is right in the President and First Lady’s wheelhouse.” Given the “win-win” situation it creates, senior volunteer programs should be in everyone’s wheelhouse. 

This year has seen the first Baby Boomer turn 65 -- the traditional age of retirement.  The Boomer generation is the most educated and healthiest group of people over 55 that America has ever seen and they are looking for ways to give back to their communities.  Pearl Arlene Hunt of Silver Spring, MD, for example, is a retired nurse who volunteers with the Montgomery County Long Term Care Ombudsman, a U.S. Administration on Aging program. 

This program allows her to use the skills she has developed over a lifetime to help residents in nursing homes and assisted living sites receive the care and dignity we all deserve. Eunice Joyner who volunteers with the Foster Grandparent Program in Petersburg, VA, talked about serving children with special needs.  Their work with two age groups that represent some of the most vulnerable members of society demonstrates that the needs of older Americans do not have to be pitted against the needs of the rest of America.  In fact, an America that is “senior friendly” will also be “children friendly.”

But it’s not only communities that see benefits from service; senior volunteers experience positive physical and psychological health benefits, including lower rates of depression and other diseases.  The Health Benefits of Volunteering, a report produced by the Corporation for National and Community Service, found that in adults age 65+, the positive effects of volunteering on physical and mental health is due to the personal sense of accomplishment an individual gains from his or her volunteer activities, leading to lower rates of depression among older Americans who do volunteer service.

Then there are the intangible rewards that are equally important.  Perhaps Ken Charvoz, a retired police officer who volunteers with OASIS in Tucson, AZ, said it most clearly today.  Volunteering, he said, “gives us a reason to get up and get going.  That’s our paycheck.” And Barbara Jones Burton, a Foster Grandparent in Richmond, VA  talked about how the students she tutors and mentors treat her as a “rock star” every day. 

Senior Corps matches volunteers age 55+ with assignments in their communities that meet critical needs. Yet research has shown that the main reason people don’t serve is that they weren’t asked.  Today I am asking.  If you have a passion, we can find you a project.

Dr. Erwin Tan is Director of Senior Corps and the Strategic Advisor for Veterans and Military Families at the Corporation for National and Community Service