Don't Call Me a 'Senior'!

By Susan J. Ellis

Thank you to everyone who posted a response to last month's 25th anniversary Hot Topic, especially to those of you who wrote such lovely congratulatory sentiments. I felt very "recognized,' which seems appropriate as we start April with (in the United States) National Volunteer Week coming up.

This month I am ruminating on age. Energize's 25th birthday coincides with my 54th birthday. When RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program) and all the other American volunteer programs now under the umbrella of "Senior Corps" began, the age of eligibility was 60. Several years ago, this was lowered to age 55. The new literature from the USA Freedom Corps reaffirms the wish to use age 55 in the future. But speaking as someone in her 50s, I'm not retired nor do I consider myself even close to "senior" anything! Ironically, of course, this lower threshold is in direct contradiction to the Social Security eligibility changes that raise the age of full retirement benefits to 67! Such mixed messages are echoed in other countries.

The fastest growing age range in developed countries is now ages 90 to 100. If we begin considering people age 55 (Senior Corps) or even 50 (AARP) to be "seniors," we are applying that label to an age cohort spanning 50+ years. One could be considered a "senior" for fully half of one's lifetime! I have said before that I think our vocabulary fails us when it comes to talking about age. We really need new words to discuss the younger senior (perhaps 60-75), the middle senior (75-85?), and the older senior (85+). Each group has important characteristics in terms of health, mobility, family support structures, energy level, discretionary funds, etc. These impact on all aspects of life, including volunteering.

In my opinion, there is nothing remarkable if an organization is successful in recruiting people aged 55 to 65 as volunteers. I can see very few things that need to be done differently for these participants than for younger ones. What concerns me most is the lack of attention being paid to those 85 and older! If we agree that our population has more and more people in their 90s and 100s, what are we doing to help these folks remain actively engaged in their communities?

I am not naïve. Many older seniors are ill or dependent on caregivers. My own mother is 92 and has Alzheimer's disease. Unfortunately, her volunteer days are over. But one of her friends in the senior lifecare center in which she lives is 97 and sharp as a tack. Leah is not very mobile, but she certainly is bright and enthusiastic. She spends most of her days on a chair in her living room, waiting for the dinner hour when she takes her walker to the dining room and spends two hours with her pals. This is the future most of us face, if we're lucky enough to remain healthy. Is there no way we can be of service to others?

This is the challenge we face in the volunteer world: tapping the talents of those truly marginalized in terms of the paid workforce, often lonely, yet increasingly active. Some questions to answer:

  • How can we solve the transportation problem for people who have given up cars and driving? If we can work out methods to bring seniors to medical care, why not to volunteer work that keeps minds healthy?
  • How can we bring meaningful work to homebound or less mobile elders? How will this problem change as people age with computer skills/access?
  • What can someone do who is bedbound? (A intergenerational gardening project in a Boulder nursing home once involved every resident by asking those in bed to "plant sit" seedlings in cups.)
  • Since some volunteers reach their 80's by "aging in place" (meaning they started with us at a younger age and just keep going), how do we find attractive and genuinely useful projects to transition them away from what they can no longer do into what they can?

There are indeed answers to these questions, but we won't find them if we take the easy route out and concentrate on people who are in their 50s. A number of years ago I ran a workshop in a school district in Florida trying to start a "Great Grannies" project. When I learned that their target recruitment audience was women around 60, I suggested they change the name to "Hot Mamas" project!

What is your take on this "senior" issue? Can you share creative ways that you are already involving people 85 and over? Let's do what's needed most, not what's expedient. The volunteer world has an obligation to understand how an ever-aging population can have an impact on our programs.

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Kathy Clevenger, Circulation/Volunteer Coordinator, Culpeper County Library, Culpeper, VA, USA

We have a woman, Celine, that is 87 years old managing our used book store in our library. She started working as a cashier in the bookstore with her husband. After he passed, she wanted to become more involved. That is when she became manager, at the age of 82. Many changes were taking place, including the introduction of a new system to check book value with Amazon, called Neat-O-Scan. Celine took the system on herself and tested it for the company. Once we were using it, she went to the Public Library Association annual meeting along with our Director. There she demonstrated the usage of the system to conference goers. To this day, she puts in an average of about 60 hours or more per month, more than some of our part-timers. She has been known to say, "I can't believe it took me this long to find a career." She is always coming up with new ideas for the bookstore including special sales such as Christmas in July. When we renovated the library, she asked for a more permanent location for the bookstore, which at the time was working out of our small receiving room. Celine ordered many of the "parts" needed for the new location and set the bookstore up to her vision of best usage of the space. We always say we don't know what we would do without her.

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, United States

Wonderful example, Kathy! Thanks for sharing. And kudos to Celine. :-)

- Susan