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.
“Volunteering is a very personal thing,” Quaintance says. “People are drawn to different causes, but it’s always something that touches them.” In response to both the need and members’ interest, AARP’s Create the Good network connects members with local volunteer opportunities.
In the Senior Companion Program, seniors receive an initial orientation and then a monthly training. They volunteer 20 hours a week at adult day care and senior centers and with homebound seniors. They receive a stipend of $106 every two weeks.
But it’s not the money that attracts them. Irby McKnight, 65, worked as an accountant and then owned a consulting firm until he retired three years ago. He decided to volunteer because he didn’t want to “sit under a tree waiting to die and complaining about arthritis.”
Volunteering, he adds, gives him purpose and has educated him about the health and social issues he will face as he gets older. “I learn something all the time,” he says.
At the Aging & Disability Resource Center in Broward County, part of a nationwide network of area agencies on aging, volunteers do everything from answering phones to serving on policy committees. One of the more popular volunteer programs is SHINE, Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders, a federally funded program that uses specially-trained older adults to advise seniors on their Medicare options. SHINE’s 32 Broward volunteers range in age from their 60s to their 80s. The oldest volunteer on ADRC’s advisory council is 94.
“These aren’t people who want to sit by the pool all day or wait for their children’s once-a week phone call,” says Edith Lederberg, ADRC executive director. “They want to go out there and be useful. They take pride in serving others.”
When seniors help other seniors, they bring a lifetime of experience and a wealth of information. Something more, too: “They’re sympathetic to other seniors,” Lederberg adds. “They understand exactly what’s going on in their lives.”
United HomeCare, a nonprofit home health and community care organization, hosts monthly open houses to recruit volunteers for its United Friends for Seniors, a program that pairs older volunteers with seniors who need assistance in everything from reading to walking. Many of their volunteers are former caregivers who “have time on their hands now and they want to stay active,” says director Blanca Ceballos.
Numerous studies have found that volunteering — the simple act of socializing and helping others — can be as beneficial to the volunteer as the recipient by enhancing a person’s physical and mental well-being. New research from Carnegie Mellon University, just published by the American Psychological Association’s Psychology and Aging journal, shows that older adults who volunteer for at least 200 hours per year decrease their risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure, by 40 percent. This suggests volunteering may be a non-pharmaceutical option to help prevent the condition which affects about 65 million Americans and is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S.
Other studies, including a 2008 Harvard report that showed social ties promote brain health, prove that staying socially active slows cognitive decline as people age.
“I think volunteers get as much out of it as the people in need,” Lederberg says. “It keeps their mind alert and it gives them satisfaction.”
Ken Thomas, 59, began volunteering with AARP in Broward as soon as he retired as an air traffic controller in 2010. He has since done a little bit of everything, from teaching driver safety to speaking on Social Security, Medicare and other issues that concern the elderly.
“Of all the things I do, this is the one thing that always makes me feel warm and fuzzy,” Thomas says. “Part of making this country great is making sure that people who are less fortunate are taken care of. It’s important to be a member of the village.”