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What Role Do Retirees Play in Today's Society? (Part Two)

by Betty Soldz

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy began a new tradition by setting the month of May to honor America's older adults. Every President since then has continued the tradition. It is a time to bring attention to the needs and accomplishments of elders and the programs available to assist them. In recognition of aging as a "global" issue and of our own nation's rapidly increasing multicultural and multigenerational population, the theme chosen this year by the Administration on Aging is "The Many Faces of Aging."

In honor of Older Americans, I would like to continue the series I started last month to promote the positive aspects of aging by acknowledging the contributions and capabilities of older Americans and some of the agencies that improve life throughout society. The following are just two sets of 'volunteers' who mostly go unrecognized for their contributions.

Since Mothers Day is also in May it seems appropriate to honor the nation's caregivers: the unacknowledged volunteers who make life bearable for many. Informal caregivers provide more care in the home -- free of charge -- than the federal government provides in all settings. According to the most recent National Long Term Care Survey, more than seven million persons are informal caregivers, providing unpaid help to older persons who live in the community and have at least one limitation on their activities of daily living. These caregivers include spouses, adult children, and other relatives and friends. According to a 1997 report by The National Alliance for Caregiving, nearly 75 percent of informal caregivers of the elderly are women. Due to longer lifespans, women in their 60's and 70's may be caring for parents in their 80's and 90's. Many are also caring for their spouses, siblings and friends. These unrecognized "volunteers" give unselfishly of themselves to care for others.

Family caregiving has been a budget-saver to governments faced annually with the challenge of covering the health and long term care expenses of persons who are ill and have chronic disabilities. If the work of caregivers had to be replaced by paid home care staff, the estimated cost would be $45-75 billion per year. Some estimates on the economic value of caregiving go as high as $200 billion.

Along with honoring the family caregivers of the elderly, we should also acknowledge all of the grandparents raising grandchildren. In 1997 there were 3.9 million children living with grandparents. In the majority of cases the grandparents are the primary caregivers. According to the Administration on Aging, researchers report that in one in ten grandparents raise a grandchild for at least six months and typically much longer. Grandparents who are caregivers tend to be women. Grandparents are raising grandchildren despite the fact that it may be financially devastating (research shows they are 60% more likely to live in poverty). The responsibility of caring for grandchildren can cause physical and emotional stress for these caregivers, of whom 67% are over the age of 50. What would be the cost to society if these caring grandparents didn't assume the care of their grandchildren? Are these grandparents doing meaningful work? Yes, they are. They are contributing both to their families and their communities.

We should also acknowledge the grandparents who assist their children with part-time care of their grandchildren. There is hardly a grandparent who does not help care for a sick grandchild or pick him/her up after school when the parents work late. Although labor statistics do not count such care, it certainly benefits society and the children.

Again, I would like to state that older Americans are an asset to their communities in many ways that are not recognized. We need to share the stories of their accomplishments. Only then will we end ageism in this country.

In the next article I will address the many agencies that would not be able to exist if it were not for retirees volunteering and making their work possible. I would also plan to do an article about women who retired and then began another career.

If you have a favorite organization or the story of a woman who began a second career that you would like to share, please contact me at

NOTE: To find out about resources for grandparent caregivers, contact your local Agency on Aging, listed in the government section of your telephone directory, usually under aging, elderly, or senior services.


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