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Senior Volunteer Programs Provide More than Service

The United States Census Bureau estimates that the 65 and older population will reach 73 million by 2030. Baby boomers are the fastest growing population in the United States and by 2029 will comprise 20% percent of the total national population. With that in mind, social service providers are thinking critically about what services are needed to help individuals as they age. In the 1970s and early 80s, Federation became the sponsoring agency for two senior volunteer programs in Suffolk County, NY, the Foster Grandparent Program and the Senior Companion Program. As an agency, over the last 40+ years, we have seen remarkable improvements in the quality of life of our senior volunteers through service to others and that experience has shaped our strategy on offering meaningful, helpful services to meet a rapidly growing aging population.

Federation has been the sponsoring agency of the Foster Grandparent Program (FGP) in Suffolk County on Long Island since 1977. This program along with the Senior Companion Program, are national volunteer programs that are administered through the Corporation for National and Community Service. They fall under the Senior Corps umbrella and provide volunteer opportunities for low-income seniors. Volunteers receive a stipend (which is not considered income for the purpose of state and federal benefits), paid vacation, personal, and sick days as well as a transportation allowance.

In the Foster Grandparent Program, we recruit and place low income senior volunteers in elementary schools, day cares, and Head Starts. There, volunteers work one-to-one with students who the teacher has identified as needing additional supports. These students may need help focusing and staying on task, need more individualized attention or social support, or need more academic support with assignments. The volunteer works with these individual students but serves the class as a whole. They become an integral part of the classroom, and very much loved by the students they serve and the teachers in the classroom.

Federation started the Senior Companion program in 1981. This program provides volunteer opportunities for low-income seniors to serve other frail, elderly seniors in their community. They visit with the senior in their home and help with light housekeeping and meal preparation, provide medication reminders, offer accompaniment to appointments, and most importantly provide companionship, socialization and conversation to individuals who may be isolated.

At the same time, we also added the Senior Companion Program to serve individuals who had been released after decades from psychiatric hospitals and who were living in adult homes along the south shore of Suffolk County. Volunteers (in our case individuals with a history of psychiatric treatment and often long-term hospitalization) provide friendly visiting and peer support, encourage adult home residents to explore their community, help with accessing community resources, and help individuals learn to use public transportation. Both programs have demonstrated to be successful in enhancing the lives of both the volunteer and the recipient of services.

Benefits of Service to Others

Many times, we tout the benefits of those in receipt of volunteer service, which are truly great in number. But what about those who are volunteering? How does the volunteer experience affect the seniors who provide the service? For one, senior volunteers are given purpose again. For many who have long retired, volunteerism gives them a place to be each day. There, the people they serve count on them to be there, and miss them when they are not there. They are given meaningful work that makes a difference and also helps them connect to others at a time in their life when many family and friends have passed on. Many of our volunteers have lost a spouse, child, or close family member and have reported to us that this volunteer work saved them. Volunteers also attend monthly in-service meetings where they get together with other volunteers for continuing education. It’s a chance to learn, socialize, make friends, and once again feel needed.

According to a recent national study, volunteers in both the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion programs reported improvements in general health and greater life satisfaction; they felt less socially isolated, and had fewer symptoms of depression. (Georges, A., Fung, W., Smith, J., Liang, J., Sum, C., & Gabbard, S. (2018). Longitudinal Study of Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion Programs: Service Delivery Implications and Health Benefits to the Volunteers. North Bethesda, MD: JBS International, Inc.). Over the past 42 years, we have seen similar data reported each year within our own program as well.

Experience Shapes the Future

While we see many of our senior volunteers benefiting from service, we also understand that many individuals have different aging experiences and may require various services to help them live as independently as possible. Our years of experience working with seniors give us an understanding of these needs and aspirations.

According to a recent article on WebMD.com, right now, 9 out of 10 older adults has a chronic disease with 8 out of 10 having more than one chronic condition. In addition, since 1980, the number of middle aged and older adults with diabetes has almost doubled. One in 9 people age 65 and older and 1 in 3 people age 85 and older develop Alzheimer’s Disease. (Wheeler, T. (2009, November 9). Over 50? These Problems Can Sneak Up on You. Retrieved from www.WebMD.com.) The aging of our population is both a blessing and a challenge. Blessed with a long lifespan, the challenge remains for seniors to create a life that is healthy and satisfying.

Now, a variety of our programs directed to meeting the needs of older people are available in the New York City and Long Island area and we are expanding and diversifying our offerings as we meet the changing needs of our growing senior population. As our older population grows dramatically in the next 20 years, we need to heed some of the lessons we have learned while engaging seniors in meaningful activity and supporting them in the least restrictive environment of their choice.

Seeing the strong need for additional services for the aging, Federation developed housing and care coordination specifically directed to the needs of older people. In 2014, we were able to divert over 100 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties from nursing home placement and link them with the community-based services that they needed to live independently. We also operate the first and only licensed community residence specifically for individuals who are 50 and over on Long Island. In addition, we are now in the planning phase of constructing a housing site in Brooklyn which will provide 119 affordable apartments for frail elderly seniors. Supportive services will be provided and space on the ground floor will be used for food assistance programs. Social workers, case managers and nurses will also operate on site.

On Long Island, our Suffolk County Respite Program supports caregivers of the frail elderly by subsidizing the cost of a respite worker to provide time off from their responsibilities to take care of their own needs. This assistance often means the difference between maintaining their loved one at home and nursing home placement. Many family members struggle with taking care of an elderly parent while balancing the needs of their own children, work schedules, and daily responsibilities. The respite worker provides much needed relief for the caregiver, allowing time to take care of themselves, recharge, and alleviate stress.

If we ask the question, “What do seniors want and need to age successfully in settings of their choice?” there are probably as many answers as there are seniors. For some that are able, it may be volunteer opportunities to keep them active and cognitively sharp. For others, it may be affordable housing with supportive services to keep them living independently and avoid costly nursing home care. Whatever it may be, agencies like ours need to think critically about how we will best serve this population that is rapidly growing each year. One thing we can all start to do now as we prepare for our future is to plan for a longer lifespan and engage in activities now which promote health and wellness and provide meaning.

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