Seniors are participating as volunteers for nonprofit organizations in record numbers. From SeniorCorps, the federally-funded national “network of programs that tap the experience, skills, and talents of older citizens to meet community challenges” (source: www.seniorcorps.org) to seniors who serve in large numbers of nonprofits throughout the country, to senior church members, grandparents and others who pursue local volunteer opportunities in the human services, recreation, cultural arts and social services.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are 35 million adults in the U.S. who are 65 years of age or older, representing 13 percent of the country’s population. The number of older seniors is also growing. Today more than 9 million U.S. residents are age 80 or older.
According to a report by Independent Sector and AARP, 47 percent of working Americans over the age of 50 volunteer while 42 percent of retired Americans in this demographic group volunteer. The report notes, “Retired volunteers aged 50 and over are even more dedicated that those still working...they give substantially more hours per month.” (Source: Experience at Work: Volunteering and Giving Among Americans 50 and Over, www.independentsector.org). With increases of 31 percent (50-64 years old) and 12.5 percent (65 and older) projected by 2010, older Americans represent a tremendous opportunity for nonprofit and volunteer organizations.
Require that senior staff and volunteers, along with other staff and volunteers, complete a Medical Information Form containing information on special medical conditions (such as allergies), all medications and at what dosage they are taken, and key contact information in the event of a medical or other emergency.
Engage seniors who let you know about a specific physical or other limitation. Explore with the senior what they are comfortable doing or how the task or assignment can be modified to address the limitation.
Provide a position description for each senior staff member and volunteer in order to convey your expectations with respect to his or her role and responsibilities in your agency. The job description should provide the kind of information the senior will need to determine whether he or she can fully perform the tasks you require.
Include specific job requirements (e.g., lifting boxes weighing up to 30 pounds) on your position descriptions. Spelling out specific tasks lets prospective staff and volunteers know what you require while reducing the chance that a mismatch will be made.
Schedule regular breaks for volunteers working shifts of two hours or longer. Encourage all staff and volunteers to let you know when they need to take more frequent rest, stretch or comfort breaks than are scheduled.
Provide an orientation and appropriate training for senior staff and volunteers. Every staff member and volunteer needs information about what you expect, as well as resources available to help them succeed while working for you.
Encourage senior staff and volunteers to ask questions while serving your agency. Like volunteers in other age groups, some seniors may be reluctant to ask questions because they fear that the question suggests ignorance or inattentiveness. Gently encourage questions and make certain all your staff and volunteers know “there is no such thing as a dumb question.” This helps ensure that the senior staff member or volunteer knows the proper and safe way to use office equipment or other potentially hazardous equipment.
Don’t make assumptions about physical or other challenges facing seniors simply because of their age.
Don’t exempt senior staff and volunteers from your screening process because you believe it is disrespectful to screen mature adults or you believe that older people do not pose a risk to vulnerable clients. All prospective workers should be subject to a screening process based on an analysis of the risks of the position. A rigorous process should be employed whenever a volunteer or paid staff member will have unsupervised contact with vulnerable clients, including young, disabled or elderly consumers.
As is true with other paid staff and volunteers, there are risks that arise when older staff members and volunteers work in nonprofit organizations. Some of these risks arise because of the expectations and physical and mental challenges of senior staff and volunteers.
It is possible to safely engage seniors in all forms of service, from new home construction, to coaching, one-to-one mentoring and meal-delivery programs. The possibilities are endless. Below are some of the risks that may arise in deploying senior volunteers and practical strategies for addressing these risks.
While it is not appropriate to assume that senior staff and volunteers face physical challenges, it is important to understand that when these challenges exist, it is still possible to engage volunteers safely in service opportunities. Senior volunteers may face challenges such as visual impairment; hearing loss; dexterity, strength and range of motion challenges; and walking difficulty. As seniors age, the percentage of individuals in a particular age group that have either a disability or chronic health concern increases as well. In some cases, a nonprofit will not be sufficiently equipped to fully involve seniors with disabilities or chronic health concerns. However, in many cases minor modifications can be made — at minimal cost — to allow barrier-free access to and use of a volunteer program’s offices and program space. Inexpensive fixes that can be made to make your work space senior-friendly include:
Some seniors may face difficulty getting to volunteer programs that do not offer ample, free parking (with parking spaces close to the entrance) or close access to public transportation. While a quarter mile hike to the subway or bus might be an acceptable commute for a teenage or young adult volunteer, a senior volunteer might be dissuaded from serving if getting to your service site is too exhausting.
Driving at night might be a problem because of reduced night-vision or reduced peripheral vision. Public transportation may not be an option in the evening if your agency is located in an area perceived as less safe. Yet, evening might be the time when older employed volunteers are available to donate time and skills. One option for addressing both these concerns is to consider ways to involve senior volunteers working from home, or working in groups at a convenient location. For example, a volunteer program might connect with a church, local quilting group, historic preservation society or other group that has a defined meeting place and arrange to provide volunteer opportunities at this existing, convenient location. Another option is to arrange carpool service for senior volunteers.
If the position requires driving, you’ll want to be certain that the driver has a current permit for your state, that there are no restrictions (such as no night driving) that would disqualify them for the assignment, and that they have appropriate insurance, if they will be driving their own car for your nonprofit. If they are driving the organization’s vehicle, the same checkpoints apply, except that you want to make certain your commercial automobile insurance is adequate and current. Some older drivers are more comfortable driving a set route; others like to strike out for parts unknown. Ask questions and match the appropriate skill and comfort level to the task at hand.
Your location could be a deterrent to older staff members or volunteers who may perceive that your location places them at greater risk than their home locale. Whether this fear is backed up by crime statistics or not, you may have to alter the way you do business in order to gain their participation. You might provide an escort from your parking facility to the building. You could provide a bulletin board where volunteers needing a ride or offering a ride could pair up.
Because seniors have a different view of mortality than younger adults and adolescents, they might be wary of going into the community to provide service to your clients. However, your organization may want their experience, ability to relate to your service recipients, and their level of judgment to deliver meals, interview clients or check on the ongoing care of an adopted animal. One statewide group equips each volunteer with a wireless phone for their own protection and peace of mind. Another organization with fewer resources provides personal safety courses to help volunteers and employees be alert and aware of their surroundings. Police officers from the local precinct donate their time and expertise. Another solution might be sending out staff and volunteers in pairs.
Older volunteers bring a wealth of knowledge and experience. Remember that each person must be judged on his or her own, not as a member of a certain age group. Don’t assume that the 50-year-old will be more mentally and physically active than the 80-year-old. Use your eyes and ears during the application and interview processes. Watch the person walk; listen for comprehension skills; note facial expression and enthusiasm; ask about interests; and then make the match. If your organization needs people who are physically fit and a sister organization has lots of volunteer slots for sedentary work, set up a referral system. Your organization will be remembered as gracious and helpful, the sister organization will gain a willing participant and the entire nonprofit sector will reap the benefits.
Experience at Work: Volunteering and Giving Among Americans 50 and Over, Independent Sector and AARP, Washington, DC 2003