Academic journal article Generations

Gold in Gray: Senior Volunteer Leaders as an Untapped Public Health Resource

Academic journal article Generations

Gold in Gray: Senior Volunteer Leaders as an Untapped Public Health Resource

Article excerpt

Contributions to healthy communities.

Articles on older Americans and public health typically begin by documenting the high healthcare costs incurred by elders, who make up just 13 percent of the population but account for more than 30 percent of expenditures on health and medical services (Fan, 2003). Such articles also often discuss the problematic health profile of older Americans, 80 percent of whom have at least one chronic health problem (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2003) and 60 percent of whom have sedentary lifestyles (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1999). Although these facts are true, they should be placed in the context of several other important realities that also merit highlighting:

* Almost a quarter of Americans 65 plus volunteer (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2003), many of them in areas, such as the provision of basic human services, that U.S. social policy fails to address adequately.

* A growing body of research, including both longitudinal and randomized controlled studies, has suggested that such involvement may significantly improve the health and well-being of older people themselves, through lowered depression rates, retention of functional abilities (Moen, 1998), and improved physical, social, and cognitive activity (Fried et al., 2004).

* "America now possesses not only the largest, but also the healthiest, best educated, and most vigorous group or seniors in history," according to Freedman (1996), and millions of those older people report wanting to volunteer-or to spend more hours doing so than they already commit.

Although elders are making substantial service contributions, and often serve as behind-the-scenes engines that drive community building and healthy aging projects, their contributions-and the health benefits of these contributions-often go unrecognized. With such notable exceptions as the Gray Panthers, the Foster Grandparents Program, and (to a lesser extent) Experience Corps and the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), advocacy and service by older people in areas like public health seldom achieve visibility or public recognition for the immense contributions they make.

In an effort to help address this lack of recognition, the University of California at Berkeley's School of Public Health, with a grant from the California Wellness Foundation, embarked in 2002 on a four-year effort to identify, recognize, and provide additional intensive training to sixty people in the state named "senior leaders" for having demonstrated outstanding service and achievement in areas including healthy aging, healthy public policy, mental health, and community building. This article describes the goals and objectives of the California Senior Leaders Project (, its accomplishments during the first two years of operation. Also noted are the challenges the project has faced in attempting to shine a spotlight on and support the work of Californians over age 60 who are making substantial service contributions to healthy aging and community building.


The objectives of the first two years of the California Senior Leaders Project were as follows: (1) to identify a diverse group of 100-120 people ages 60 and over who were playing leadership roles in healthy aging and community building in the state; (2) to select from this group thirty-five senior leaders for recognition and training at a special two-day statewide event; (3) to provide the selected group with additional monthly support and limited technical assistance; and, (4) and to set in motion a "ripple effect" whereby older participants would share what they had learned with their peers and facilitate increased development of leadership among other older people and their allies in the community.

While the focus of this project was on the older people, an additional objective was to engage seven to ten graduate students in public health and others in working collaboratively with older people through service-learning classes. …

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