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

Maine 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 schools.

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 substantially.

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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.

America's 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: time.

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."

In 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 age.

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 Survive? 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.

Establishment 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.

Although 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 neighborhoods.

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 assignments.

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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