Senior citizens form a huge, available network of volunteers that can benefit educators if they'll only ask for help, the president of the largest organization of older Americans says.

"We're not just an organization of old folks working for old folks," said Robert B. Maxwell, president of the American Association of Retired Persons. "We're very concerned about whole families. We are just as concerned about what the future will be for our grandkids as anyone."Maxwell said his "big push" is "trying to improve education and literacy in the United States. We're in a tragic downturn. Sixty percent of youths graduating from high school can't fill out applications for entry-level jobs."

Maxwell is in Salt Lake City this week to encourage educators to tap the resources provided by senior citizens. He's addressing a conference here on Friday.

AARP has more than 400,000 volunteers over age 50 who have pledged to get involved in education and help teachers. In the Baltimore, Maryland, area, Maxwell said, senior volunteers have contributed more than $6 million worth of work a year.

Children respect senior citizens, said Maxwell, and seem to enjoy the attention and companionship they receive. And anything that will combat illiteracy is important, he said.

"We're losing our position in the world economy because young people are just not up to maintaining it. Families are leaving to schools the indoctrination of mores and values to kids. That has to be done in the family. We've neglected our duty in recognizing that quality education is everyone's responsibility."

Besides becoming involved in literacy and education, senior citizens will be called upon increasingly in the future to fill emerging jobs in the work force, he said. "We'll need to refurbish the skills and talents of people in my age group. There'll be plenty to do."

Recent Congressional budget decisions have come under fire because of the cuts to the Medicare program. Maxwell said those "supposed cuts" have been misinterpreted by the press.

"We (AARP) feel we came out very well. Media have said the cost is going up, but that was going to go up anyway. The Medicare premium hasn't really changed. There's a formula and beneficiaries of Medicare are supposed to pay 25 percent of the bill. Those increases would have taken place anyway. It could have been so much worse. And the $25 increase in the deductible - when you get a bill, that's peanuts."

Besides literacy, the largest problem facing American people, he said, is "the huge number of people without access to the health-care system. We're concerned not just with senior citizens, but with the child born with spina bifida. A great country like this should be able to cushion the shock. We're going to have to find a solution to the huge uninsured problem by involving both socialized and private ideas into some sort of universal health-care system."

Experts contend the cost of health care will reach a predicted $5,000 per capita by the year 2000 if something isn't done, he said.