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What Role Do Retirees Play in Today's Society?

by Betty Soldz

It seems like every time we turn on our radio or open a magazine we are told that after retirement we have no useful place in society. Either we are frail and need support services or we are so vain we are only using our time and money for face lifts and we've disengaged from life. The truth about who we are as older adults is much vastly different from the picture reflected by, in large part, the advertising community.

We are the healthiest, most active, best educated, and longest living older adults in our country's history. We are 34 million strong - nearly 13 percent of the population. Many of us continue to be active members of society; we continue to learn, grow and contribute to our communities. Some of us are frail but this should not define who we are; it doesn't mean we have disengaged from life.

As people live longer and enter old age in better health, the generally accepted goals for our later years do not necessarily apply. "Sun cities" and "the golden years" or "the leisure years" fit the lifestyle of very few older Americans today. Although there will always be some retirees who desire to have a full time life of leisure, a national survey by the Los Angeles Times found that today's generation of older Americans are poised not only to defy long-standing views of aging but to redefine this stage of life. The survey indicates that most retirees are not ready to withdraw and sit on the sideline.

This is the first of a series of articles on the contributions made by midlife and older retirees throughout this country. I hope by demonstrating how they continue to benefit society we can help to change the attitudes that lead to ageism -- to change societal views of older Americans from burdens to assets.

One of the mistakes our society makes is failing to measure and acknowledge the tremendous contributions midlife and older people make to their communities and society. Our government agencies only compile labor statistics based on what is done for pay. They ignore all the unpaid labor such as caregiving by families and friends and the millions of hours of labor donated to volunteer services for the benefit of our society. Those who work for pay are considered productive. Those who volunteer their services are not.

A good example is the lack of recognition of those who act as caregivers to the frail and disabled. Without this unpaid labor most frail seniors would be in nursing homes, adding tremendous costs to our health care system. Also, there are over a million grandparents raising their grandchildren and many others are assisting in after school care. This statistical system which says that helping others, while not being paid, adds nothing to the country's gross national product underestimates peoples' value but especially undervalues women and elders. Unpaid work is productive. By overlooking this, society creates an incorrect impression of idleness among seniors which is incorrect.

According to The Administration on Aging nearly half of the people 65 and over participate in volunteer activities. ( 61% of these are women.). Volunteers give an average of 4.4 hours per week to organizations or causes. Some donate as much as 40 hours per week. These volunteer services are estimated to be worth more than 70.5 billion dollars. Older Americans want to engage in meaningful participation and do so by volunteerism, caregiving, advocacy, as well as working for pay. A recent survey found that half of those 50 - to 75 - years - old rank volunteering or community service as one of the most important parts of their retirement plans.

Older Americans are actively involved in aiding others through thousands of organizations that wouldn't exist without volunteers. Just a few of these are AARP (formerly known as American Association of Retired Persons) which according to an article in the March 21st New York times, enlists up to 3.4 million volunteers. OWL, The Voice of Midlife and Older Women, relies on the volunteer services of its members to organize and facilitate state and local chapters, volunteer in its National office and do the work of local and state advocacy.

The retired doctors, nurses and other health workers who constitute Volunteers in Medicine give their time to clinics that provide care free of charge to people who do not have health insurance. More than 12,000 retired executives offer advice and assistance to 300,000 small businesses through a government sponsored volunteer program called the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE). Older Americans volunteer in the Peace corps and according to Americorps*Vista there are currently 1,129 Vista members age 50 and over. 899 of these are women between the ages of 50 and 86.

Another volunteer organization is the Experience Corps, a project which places retirees in schools across the country to read to and with children, talk to and tutor them. The Experience Corps has placed over 800 volunteer retirees in 70 schools across the country. The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), which helps people age 55 and older put their skills and life experience to work in their communities, has approximately 455,000 volunteers that serve through more than 63,000 public and private nonprofit community organizations. The value of this service is estimated at $1.2 billion.

I've listed just a few of the ways that midlife and older Americans benefit their community and society. I intend to write in the future about this, interesting volunteer projects and the people who work in them.

If you'd like to share some of the things you or your agency are doing, I would love to hear from you. You can contact me at

Organizations mentioned the article:

The Administration on Aging
OWL: The Voice of Older and Mid-Life Women

Volunteers in Medicine

Service Corps of Retired Executives

Corporation for National Service: Americorps Vista

The Experience Corps



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