Academic journal article Generations

The Potential of Older Volunteers in Long-Term Care

Academic journal article Generations

The Potential of Older Volunteers in Long-Term Care

Article excerpt

Are volunteers, particularly older volunteers, a way to meet some of the future healthcare needs of the elderly? The United States has a rate of volunteerism and philanthropy approximately twice that of other countries (Ladd, 1999) and throughout its history has had a strong tradition of volunteerism. Now, despite numerous indicators of a declining engagement with community and a reduction in civic activities (Putnam, 2000), volunteerism continues to flourish. In fact, numerous polls and surveys during the past decade continue to report growth in volunteerism, from approximately 3o percent in the 1970s to 50 percent of Americans volunteering in the 1990s. In the same decades, the average number of times that Americans reported volunteering grew from six to eight times per year (Putnam, 2000).

What accounts for this overall growth in volunteer activity in an era of declining civic engagement, and can we expect it to continue? Numerous surveys and survey analysts have indicated a significant increase in volunteering by those 60 and over in the past twenty-five years, with an increase of volunteering from an average of six times to an average of twelve times per year, and the proportion of those over 65 who volunteer increasing from ii to 4i percent of the older population (Putnam, 2000; Chambre, 1993; Independent Sector, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989). During the same time period, a small increase in volunteering from 3.5 to 4.5 times per year was documented in the 20- to 30-year-old population, whereas all other age groups demonstrated a decreasing rate of volunteering. These figures have led observers, including Costello (1991), Freedman (1994), and others, to describe the over-60 population as an untapped resource and one of the only natural resources in the United States that is actually increasing. This assessment is based both on the number of older people currently available to volunteer and on the tremendous future growth potential for older volunteerism that the aging of the baby boom represents. In real numbers, there are currently approximately 34 million people over 65 years old in the United States, i4 million of whom report that they are volunteering. In comparison, by 2030 the baby boomers will be 66-84 years old and will represent close to 70 million people and 20 percent of the total population (Marriott, 1991) who have the potential to serve as volunteers.

What accounts for the growth in volunteering among older people to date, and what actual volunteerism can be expected of the baby boomers as they age? The demographics of the current and future older volunteers are an important indicator. More educated and more affluent populations are more likely to volunteer (Glickman and Caro, 1992). Older people today have more education and are somewhat financially better off than prior generations, and their overall health status is improving. While the baby boomers are a more heterogeneous population than previous generations, their overall education, health, and financial status will be better than any preceding cohort (Harootyan, 1991). Because of the positive association between education, income, and volunteerism, the likelihood of volunteering is greater among the current cohort of middle-aged and older adults. The increase in educational levels also creates a more active older-adult population with more professional or technical skills. These demographic changes are occurring in a cultural context in which the stereotypical view of a passive and disengaged older person is eroding and new images and concomitant roles are emerging. The culture continues to evolve in its awareness that older people are a resource in responding to societal needs through both paid and unpaid work. Chambre (1987) and others indicate that volunteerism is often combined with paid part-time employment for older people. While Putnam (2000) demonstrates through analysis of several surveys that current participation in voluntary activity among baby boomers is lower than among individuals of the same age in 1975, the sheer volume of potential volunteers that the baby boom represents will produce large numbers of older people available to serve. …

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