The Aging Opportunity: America's Elderly as a Civic Resource

Medical Center is the state's best hospital, the place where the region's
sickest children come for extended treatment even though their parents
often have to return home, four or five hours away, to work and other children.
The result is eight-year-olds left alone to battle cancer. This is where
Aggie Bennett and Louise Casey, both nearly 80 years old, come in. Their
role is to become surrogate family for children on the pediatrics ward.
Four hours a day, five days a week, for car fare and a daily stipend of
about nine dollars, these Foster Grandparent volunteers serve as a steady
source of love and support.

"I don't think I'd been here a year," Aggie recalls, "when
the head of the unit asked me, 'How strong a person are you?' I said, 'Well,
I've always prided myself that I was strong.' She said, 'We got a baby
that is dying, and we promised that mother that her baby would not die
in a crib. Do you think you could hold her?' Well, they put me in a room
here, they kept checking on me, and that baby didn't die in no crib . .
. that baby died in my arms. . . . I didn't feel fear . . . I just felt
good. You know how it is, Louise, when you just sit with them, and your
heart's aching, but you don't let them know it, that's all."

Aggie and Louise have no plans to quit. Aggie tried retirement once
before, after a life raising two children on her own and working as a waitress
and secretary. It left her feeling useless, isolated, and depressed. At
her daughter's pleading, she agreed to try the Foster Grandparent Program
for one week: "That one week," she explains, "turned out
to be 19 years."


The United States is in the midst of a demographic revolution. There
are twice as many older adults today as there were 30 years ago; soon nearly
a quarter of the population will be more than 65 years old. By the middle
of the next century, for the first time, the number of Americans over 65
will exceed those under 18.

For the most part, this transformation is portrayed as a source of new
strains on families, the economy, and the federal budget. We don't hear
about Aggie and Louise but rather about a vast and selfish cohort of elders
out to bankrupt posterity. Investment banker Pete Peterson, co-founder
of the Concord Coalition, foresees fiscal doom and complains that Americans
believe "they have an inalienable right to live the last third of
their adult lives in subsidized leisure." Even the liberal economist
Lester Thurow, a contributing editor of this magazine, describes the older
population as a new "revolutionary class" that is "bringing
down the social welfare state" and "threatening the investments
that all societies need . . . to have a successful future." Peterson
and Thurow are joined by a parade of columnists and editorial writers who
envision an aging America as a land of gleaming hospitals and decaying

While we do need adjustments in Social Security, the prevailing pessimism
about the graying of America is blinding us to the great promise of this
change. From a social perspective, the aging society may be not so much
a problem to be solved as an opportunity to be seized-provided we can learn
to harness the talent and civic potential of our senior citizens. After
all, our elder population is, quite possibly, this country's only increasing
natural resource.


The American "heart readily leans to the side of kindness,"
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy
in America
. A century and a half later, it's hard to be so sure.
Observers across the political spectrum are sounding the civic alarm, citing
research indicating diminished community involvement. According to a 1994
Gallup survey conducted for Independent Sector, a group that represents
nonprofit organizations, the proportion of adults who volunteer declined
from 54 to 48 percent between 1989 and 1993. In absolute numbers, that's
a decrease of nearly 10 million volunteers, from 98.4 million in 1989 to
89.2 million in 1993. The survey also indicated that three-quarters of
volunteers give fewer than five hours per week and that the percentage
of volunteers giving fewer hours than they did the previous year has jumped

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Changes in the role of women may be one of the key factors in this shift.
For most of this century, through a myriad of unpaid, undervalued, often
unnoticed tasks, women have served as the glue in American communities.
But today 61.7 percent of mothers with preschoolers (and half of all mothers
with infants) are working at paid jobs, up from 19 percent in 1960. And
two-thirds of employed mothers work full time. Berkeley sociologist Arlie
Hochschild has shown that when child rearing, housework, and paid employment
are combined, women work 15 more hours a week than men do-equivalent to
an extra month of 24-hour days each year. After a work week of 70 or 80,
or even 100, hours, how many people have the time and energy for a third
shift laboring on behalf of the greater good? It is no wonder that PTA
membership has plummeted from 12 million to 7 million since the mid-1960s.

In the eyes of reactionaries, the civic crisis is another reason for
women to resume their traditional role. A recent Commentary article
("Why Mothers Should Stay Home") by David Gelernter, a computer
science professor at Yale, chastises the women's movement for championing
equal employment instead of "a national corps of full-time mothers"
serving "as the mainstay of community and civil society." But
this ignores the profound economic, psychological, and social forces propelling
women to work. Even as Gelernter admits, a full-time mother corps is now
unrealistic. A more promising route to civic renewal resides in looking
forward, not hoping history will suddenly begin running backward.

burgeoning older population could come to succeed women as the new trustees
of civic life, provided we create institutions and opportunities for service
enabling seniors to make a genuine contribution while benefiting themselves
in the process. America now possesses not only the largest, but also the
healthiest, best-educated, and most vigorous group of seniors in history.
Only 5 percent of older adults reside in nursing homes; fewer than 20 percent
face substantial disability, and more than 60 percent report no disability
whatsoever. And older adults have what the working-age population lacks:

First, elders have time to care. As the British historian Peter Laslett
observes, free time was once the exclusive province of the aristocracy;
today it is the democratic possession of millions of citizens, those in
later life. Retirement frees up 25 hours a week for men and 18 hours for
women, according to time-diary studies conducted by the University of Maryland's
Survey Research Center. And more people are retiring earlier. In 1948,
90 percent of men between 55 and 64 were working; nearly a half century
later, only 67 percent are in the paid labor force. Many Americans now
at work will spend a third or more of their adult life in retirement.

Second, seniors have more time lived. They have practical knowledge,
and in some cases wisdom, gained from experience. And because they carry
with them a world lost to younger generations, they may well be our greatest
practical repository of the social capital that Robert Putnam and others
fear is drying up [see "The Strange Disappearance
of Civic America
," TAP, Winter 1996].

Third, seniors' time left to live may give them special reason to become
involved in the civic and voluntary work that others cannot perform. The
awareness in old age that death is closer than birth may inspire reflection
about the legacy that we leave behind. According to the late psychologist
Erik Erikson, the hallmark of successful late-life development is the capacity
to be generative, to pass on to future generations what one has learned
from life. For Erikson, this notion is encapsulated in the understanding,
"I am what survives of me."

addition, a number of recent studies suggest that more older adults may
be willing to volunteer. A 1992 Louis Harris survey sponsored by the Commonwealth
Fund estimates the number of older adults not currently volunteering but
willing and able to do so at 6 million. A survey by the federal Administration
on Aging from 1991 puts the number at 14 million and states that a quarter
of the 15 million older adults currently serving say they would prefer
to put in more time. While surveys of this type are prone to overstatement,
the responses probably reflect a healthy dose of enlightened self-interest.
Several studies following people over their lives link strong social ties
and community engagement to prolonged physical and mental health in old

So one might expect to see much clamoring to engage elders in service
to communities, but the opposite is true. Volunteering falls off sharply
after retirement. Although the levels of volunteering have improved substantially
since the early 1960s, older Americans still serve less than any other
age group, even those overwhelmed adults in their middle years.

How do older Americans spend their time? They watch more television
than any other age group does-a staggering half of all elders' free time.
Housework is the next major activity absorbing time liberated in later
life. It is no surprise that a majority of older respondents to a recent
Louis Harris poll lament the loss of usefulness after retirement.


Perhaps the best way to get older Americans to serve is to ask them--but
simply asking is not enough. While the graying of America is dramatically
changing the social landscape, we have yet to develop the institutions
appropriate to the new demographic realities, a mismatch that former National
Institute on Aging director Matilda White Riley calls "structural
lag" and that historian Daniel Boorstin attributes to America's longstanding
conception of itself as a young nation. According to Boorstin, we have
been ingenious at inventing institutions to make full use of the resources
of youth, such as the system of land grant colleges. However, our youth-focused
orientation serves us less well as our population ages and we require new
institutions that make full use of the resources of age.

To rectify this situation, a growing number of leaders have called for
a service corps aimed at attracting and mobilizing older adults on behalf
of communities. Physician and gerontologist Robert Butler first proposed
such an arrangement 25 years ago in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Why
Others argue specifically that the talents of seniors be applied
to helping children. Brookings economist Laurel McFarland proposes
creating a senior service corps specializing in child care (a "Pepper
Corps," named in honor of the late congressman and elderly advocate,
Claude Pepper). Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and author, contends that
"tapping the energy and compassion of seniors might go some distance
toward filling the enormous parenting deficit in our society."

But would older Americans respond to the call for service on a substantial
scale? And would they do work of genuine value? Small but compelling pilot
programs suggest the kinds of contributions seniors might make. In Hilton
Head, South Carolina, a group of retired physicians and nurses have formed
a free health clinic providing, among other things, preventive care for
low-income families. In Virginia and Montana, the Senior Environmental
Corps is dedicated to alerting doctors, the elderly, and the public to
the special environmental hazards faced by the older population. In Massachusetts,
a group of downsized electrical workers is helping young ex-criminal offenders
make the transition to productive life in the community.

Most directly relevant, we already have a National Senior Service Corps,
or Senior Corps, a remarkable but little-known program administered by
the Corporation for National Service and enlisting half a million elders
in the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), Senior Companion Program,
and Foster Grandparent Program at an annual federal cost of about $140
million. (Of the half million volunteers, approximately 60,000, including
all Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions, serve at the half- to full-time
levels associated with national service.) The Senior Corps is America's
"other" national service program--and our best glimpse at how
engaging older Americans might be accomplished on a grander scale.

of the Senior Corps resulted as much from historical accident and political
expediency as from enlightened vision. Lyndon Johnson hardly ignored the
elderly--Medicare, which pays their medical bills, and Medicaid, which
covers long-term care, were the biggest programs to emerge from the Great
Society. But the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the central command
of the war on poverty, effectively ignored seniors until Florida Senator
George Smathers, backed by Bobby and Ted Kennedy, held up OEO's budget
in 1965, demanding that the Johnson administration do something for the
elderly poor.

As a result, the Office of Aging at the Department of Health, Education
and Welfare was ordered to devise an initiative engaging low-income seniors
in community service for vulnerable children. When the office unveiled
its proposal, however, the nation's most progressive children's organizations--mostly
hospitals and large institutions for developmentally disabled youth--rejected
the model as preposterous. The elders would have little to contribute to
children, they complained; besides, seniors would spread disease and probably
even lack the wherewithal to get to the job. The agencies actually refused
to take the government's money.

Facing a mid-summer deadline, the Office of Aging hurriedly redesigned
what would become the Foster Grandparent Program, pairing elders and disadvantaged
or disabled children, one-on-one, 20 hours a week, for a small tax-free
stipend ($2.45 an hour today). Ultimately, 24 children's organizations
were persuaded to participate (although once funded, more than a few simply
dispatched elders to change bedpans and take out the trash, until federal
officials showed up again, threatening to take back the cash).


The Foster Grandparent Program has turned out not only to be one of
the survivors from the Great Society, but one of the era's hidden triumphs.
However, its growth has been achingly slow. Each year, because of insufficient
funds, the Foster Grandparent Program turns away thousands of older adults
eager to devote 20 hours each week to helping young people in dire circumstances.
Nationally, with little advertising, the initiative maintains a waiting
list equivalent to one-quarter of its approximately 25,000 slots.

The record of the Foster Grandparent Program suggests that if we build
appealing service opportunities for older adults, they will come forward.
More than 70 evaluations of the initiative confirm that elders will not
only be able to make a substantial contribution through service--as the
experience of Aggie and Louise illustrates--but take a great deal from
it themselves. "Every dollar gets spent twice" is the program's
informal motto.

As three decades of the Foster Grandparent Program, Senior Companion
Program, and RSVP testify, it is feasible to engage seniors in service
on a national scale while maintaining standards of quality and core principles.
Since most elders already receive Social Security and other benefits, they
don't need anything close to the income support that national service for
youth requires. (Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions receive approximately
$2,500 a year in return for half-time service.) These programs are the
kind of government that even conservatives can love: promoting voluntarism
and stronger communities at low cost, without suffocating local control.

national service has now become a partisan issue, the Senior Corps has
spanned Democratic and Republican administrations across three decades,
enjoying some bipartisan support. The Foster Grandparent Program may have
had its roots in the War on Poverty, but it also can claim the adoration
of Nancy Reagan. In To Love a Child, her 1982 book extolling the
program, the former First Lady declares, "The Foster Grandparent Program
is my baby, and my involvement during the past fifteen years has been like
watching my child grow up." She even convinced Frank Sinatra, in what
must have been one of the more bizarre moments in the history of American
social policy, to croon about the Foster Grandparent Program as part of
the program's twentieth anniversary.

For all their virtues, the Senior Corps programs also have profound
limitations. Both the Foster Grandparent Program and the Senior Companion
Program (similar to the Foster Grandparent Program but focused on assisting
frail elders to live independently) are restricted to volunteers with low
incomes. Participants are limited to working one-on-one with clients. And
as sizable waiting lists reflect, the programs are too small and too scattered.
It is difficult to find even a single community where the Senior Corps
represents a strong, visible presence, and the programs are available in
only a fraction of counties across the country. In short, a considerable
gap continues to exist between promise and practice.

Recognizing this gap, the 1995 White House Conference on Aging recommended
doubling the Senior Corps by the turn of the century. Doing so will require
rethinking national service, long associated in the public mind with young
people in programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, Peace Corps, and
now AmeriCorps. Yet "cracking the atom" of senior service, as
former Senator Harris Wofford--now CEO of the Corporation for National
Service--has vowed to do, might make both substantive and political sense.

In a Ford Foundation study examining the feasibility of national service,
policy analysts Richard Danzig and Peter Szanton concluded that older adults
"may have more to give and more reason to benefit from national service
than any other age group." In the context of battles over Social Security
and Medicare, refocusing
on opportunities for older Americans to give back to society might find
considerable response. This past year, as Republicans in Congress were
slashing the AmeriCorps program, they nonetheless restored funds to the
Foster Grandparent Program and the other Senior Corps programs.

While more money will take us part of the way, we also need to create
new opportunities for senior service. One such experiment is the new Experience
Corps, a pilot program jointly sponsored by the Corporation for National
Service, Johns Hopkins Medical School, and Public/Private Ventures, the
Philadelphia social policy development organization where I work. The Experience
Corps builds on the best features of the Foster Grandparent Program to
mobilize a critical mass of neighborhood elders on behalf of inner-city
elementary schools. The aim is to make schools more caring and personal
places and to bolster ties between these institutions and their surrounding

Through the Experience Corps, elders not only work directly with children
as tutors and mentors but also serve as leaders in expanding parental involvement
and service-learning opportunities for students. While the project encourages
a substantial half- to full-time commitment by volunteers (including a
tax-free stipend of up to $200 a month and free classes from the Elderhostel
organization), elders unprepared to make so big a commitment can serve
without pay for either a few hours a week or more intensively in short-term

The Experience Corps is also aimed at rebuilding the constituency for
public schools among elders. This may sound utopian, but in the early 1980s,
Miami began actively recruiting elder school volunteers and built a corps
2,500 strong. These volunteers played a critical role in passing an important
school bond issue. In March 1988, 72 percent of older adults voted for
the bond--a remarkable level of support, considering that many of the elderly
in Miami have grandchildren in other states.


The retirement of 75 million baby boomers will almost certainly force
redefinition of what it means to grow old in America. In the coming upheaval,
Erik Erikson's notion that "we are what survives of us," of generativity
at both the individual and societal levels, might well serve as a framework
for deliberations--and a counterbalance to prevailing notions that the
elderly are posterity's enemies.

Who better to revitalize the sense of generativity in society, to cultivate
and nurture connection, interdependence, and care for the future, than
older adults? Elders have the time to care. In developmental terms, they
need to care. Society desperately needs new sources of caring. If elders
do not step in to fill the civic vacuum, who will?

For all its appeal, such a shift won't happen easily, or automatically,
just as a result of having more older adults. And we can no longer rely
on the historical serendipity that bequeathed us the Foster Grandparent
Program and its companion programs. Rather, we will need a deliberate effort
to construct the "institutional inheritance," as Peter Laslett
calls it, capable of making generative opportunities available and attractive
to coming waves of Americans.

William James, who first raised the idea of national service for young
people in 1906, observed in his later years, "The great use of life
is to spend it for something that will outlast us." There could be
no clearer articulation of why our elders need the very engagement in our
communities that we need of them.

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