Volunteering A Win-Win for Seniors and Rural Communities
by Candi Helseth
As part of Maine's ENCorps senior
volunteer program, Don Nodine volunteers about 400 hours
each year, maintaining 20 miles of free trails used by
cross-country skiers during Maine's winters. Edgar
Anderson works side-by-side with African refugees in the
state, helping them plant and grow gardens, raising
produce to feed their families and to donate to local
“Older volunteers experience better emotional
health because of the social connections volunteering
gives them,” ENCorps Program Manager Jennifer
Crittenden said. “They also are learning
something new, which is important for aging and
maintaining cognitive health.”
“In rural communities, the service of older
adults can be of crucial value for the nonprofit
organizations serving the population, helping to expand
the capacity or extend services to more
individuals,” said Wendy Spencer, CEO of the
for National and Community Service (CNCS), the
federal agency that operates the Senior Corps program.
ENCorps (Encore Leadership Corps), a program of the
Maine Center on Aging in partnership with the
Foundation, is open to seniors 50 and over who are
interested in maximizing volunteer participation in their
communities. ENCorps provides services for volunteers
such as skill-building training, educational workshops,
networking and modest financial support.
The beauty of ENCorps, Crittenden said, is that it allows
volunteers to choose particular projects of interest in
their communities. Nodine, an enthusiastic outdoorsman
who cross-country skis, applied for an ENCorps stipend to
repair the lot where skiers park near the trails.
Anderson anticipates building a greenhouse to better
serve Maine's large African refugee population. The
university's Tidewater Farms provides a support network
for this population, which is struggling with a traumatic
past and separation from family.
“We can fit ENCorps locally to our needs rather
than the needs being identified by federal and state
level entities,” Crittenden explained.
“Senior Corps is a national model that focuses
on key areas for volunteer placement. It's a great model
for people interested in volunteering and looking for a
Maine has many strong Senior
Corps volunteers too. In 2013, Foster Grandparents
met the needs of 2,258 children with special needs. RSVP
volunteers provided 12,607 hours of Medicare counseling
and delivered 164,785 meals through Meals on Wheels.
Senior Companions made 27,780 home visits to 850 clients.
Currently, 16 percent of Maine residents are over 65,
compared to 13 percent nationally. By 2020, one in five
will be over 65, Crittenden said. Sixty-three
percent live in rural communities.
Enhancing Community Outreach
In Montana, approximately 200 RSVP volunteers assist with
activities coordinated by more than 25 nonprofit
organizations in Richland County, where
just under 10,000 residents are spread throughout 2,100
square miles. Long distances separate medical services.
Home care services are spotty and public transportation
“Senior volunteers are important in helping our
community maintain services because, without them, many
things would not be accomplished and many of these
services would not exist,” said Greta Mannen,
RSVP Director for Richland County. “Many of
these organizations are nonprofit businesses operating
with tight budgets and staffing shortages.”
RSVP's Seniors Outreaching To Seniors (SOS) fills a gap
for residents there who would be unable to continue
living independently without some in home assistance.
RSVP also works closely with The Senior Coalition, a
community organization that addresses senior issues, such
as medication setups and funding assistance.
As a family member, Theresa Livers appreciated Senior
Companions' benefits when her father was admitted to a
nursing home. Livers' 90-year-old mother remained in
“Senior Companions became an extremely valuable
part of my mother's last years because all her friends
were gone, so she welcomed these new friends and their
visits,” Livers said. “It gave her
something uplifting in her day to focus on. The Senior
Companion program strives to improve the quality of life
for seniors, making the most of what time is left while
much of society just focuses on quantity of
Livers, who is Continuum of Care Administrator at Sidney
Health Center, said social workers often refer
hospitalized patients to Senior Companions at the time of
discharge. The social support helps ensure that these
patients continue to recuperate and achieve the best
possible level of health and well-being.
“RSVP and Senior Companions are a major support
not only for our organization, but for the entire
community,” Livers said. “We can
certainly attest to their great work and the need for
More than 6,600 Montana residents volunteer through
Corps programs. In addition to more than 820
nonprofit organizations benefiting from RSVP volunteers,
Montana RSVP volunteers are also involved in projects
such as safety patrols, home renovations, youth mentoring
and responding to natural disasters. In 2013-2014, Senior
Companions assisted with more than 1,000 homebound
seniors. Foster Grandparents mentored more than 5,300
special needs young people.
“Our volunteers have varied interests and
passions,” Mannen said. “We place
them in a volunteer site that they enjoy.”
Building Senior Volunteerism
As Baby Boomers—76 million Americans born between 1946
and 1964—continue to reach the age typically associated
with retirement, the pool of potential senior volunteers
will keep increasing. Based on U.S. Census data, the
number of volunteers age 65 and over is likely to
increase 50 percent over the next 13 years.
The influence of Baby Boomers on the volunteer market is
already visible. Baby Boomers now in their mid- to
late-50s have higher volunteer rates than past
generations at those ages. They have relatively higher
education levels, skills and experience. However, Baby
Boomers also have different expectations for volunteering
than previous generations, according to
Keeping Baby Boomers Volunteering.
“When we compare our RSVP and ENCorps members,
ENCorps members tend to be younger,” Crittenden
said. “The ENCorps model is particularly
attractive to Baby Boomers because many are still in the
workforce. They have particular skills they want to use.
We've even seen them launch new careers from their
ENCorps' structural approach also appeals to Baby
Boomers, she added. Electronic communication, webinars
and other technologies are used for education, training
“For the most part, we engage with them
online,” Crittenden said. “And the
way we set up the program with flexibility makes it more
attractive to the Baby Boomer population.”
A rural volunteerism study done by the
Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration
cites flexibility, short-term projects, community
connections, transportation assistance and placement of
volunteers in rewarding situations as important
strategies to engage rural volunteers.
Educating rural residents about volunteerism's health
benefits can also be advantageous. Those who volunteer
have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability
and lower rates of depression later in life than those
who do not volunteer, according to The
Health Benefits of Volunteering.
Last year, 64.5 million Americans
volunteered nearly $7.9 billion in hours. Volunteers
age 65 and over spent a median of 90 hours on volunteer
activities, the highest among any age group and well
above the 50 median hours donated by the general
volunteer population. These volunteers extend the
capabilities of national and local nonprofits, schools,
disaster relief groups, public agencies and faith-based
and community organizations, according to
CNCS's Impact on Our Nation.
“With a lifetime of skills and experience, Baby
Boomers and senior volunteers are uniquely suited to
serve the needs of our children, veterans and
elderly,” Spencer affirmed.
However, the greatest benefit may be for the volunteers
themselves. “We see every day how true it is
that volunteering keeps people young at heart,”