Olga Ramos is on a mission. Still spry at 87, with a sharp sense of humor and the laugh to match, Ramos wants to improve the lives of the less fortunate.
So every day she takes a bus to the Jack Orr Senior Center in Miami to offer help and companionship to Maria Teresa Laguna, once a stranger and now a friend. The two elderly women talk about their lives, their families and the various afflictions of age.
“We have a lot to share,” Ramos explains.
After Laguna suffered a stroke, Ramos was there to offer support, whether it was opening a small carton of milk or helping with the walker.
Ramos is one of 157 Miami-Dade volunteers with the Senior Companion Program, a national service that is part of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Most counties in Florida offer the same service, sometimes under another name. Formed four decades ago — along with Foster Grandparents and other service programs — Senior Companion pairs healthy older adults with their less abled peers to provide a variety of services, from help with grooming to assistance at the grocery store.
It’s been called a service for elders, by elders, to serve elders. “The idea is to bring together seniors who want to contribute with seniors who are homebound or who need extra help or simply don’t have family nearby,” says Elizabeth Morales, Senior Companion Program coordinator for Miami-Dade’s Community Action and Human Services Department “Over time they build this bond of friendship. They practically become family.”
Or as Laguna, 83, puts it: “She’s Nicaraguan and I’m Cuban, but we understand each other perfectly. We enjoy each other’s company because we’ve lived through many similar things.”
Ramos and Laguna exemplify what some experts say is a growing trend. As the population ages and lives longer, more seniors are looking for ways to give back to the community and in some cases they prefer to do so by helping their own generation.
Volunteering among seniors hit a 20-year high in 2011, according to a report by the Corporation for National and Community Service released earlier this year. One in three Americans 55 and older is helping others through a network of agencies, from government sponsored programs to informal neighborhood-based assistance. Using Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CNCS report found that the percentage of older volunteers has steadily increased during the past decade, from 25.1 percent in 2002 to 31.2 percent in 2011. Many are volunteering by doing favors for neighbors. Others do it through a religious institute or a non profit.
Senior advocates and agencies in need are hopeful the trend will continue. As the population ages, older adults with a lifetime of skills and experience can help tackle the problems of their community. Barb Quaintance, managing director of AARP’s Experience Corps, calls this demographic “a great resource with tremendous potential.” She cites a 2008 AARP study, “More to Give,” that challenged civic programs and government agencies to engage the talents of millions of baby boomers and members of the Silent Generation. The study found that older Americans expressed the most interest in volunteering with the elderly and in mentoring or tutoring young people.