SALT LAKE CITY — Louis Miller, now 69, oversaw the Salt Lake airport for 20 years, then directed the airport in Tampa, before taking on oversight of the massive Atlanta, Georgia, airport. Three years ago Miller returned to Salt Lake City with his wife, Cyndy, to enjoy retirement. But slowing down was never part of their plan.
Miller is an active — and avid — volunteer, one of what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says is more than 11 million seniors 65 and older around the country who stay active and engaged by serving others. That’s nearly 23.5 percent of seniors.
Corporation for National and Community Service, 2010 data | Aaron Thorup, Corporation for National and Community Service, 2010 data
Older volunteers are the backbone of many service organizations and efforts. In May, the Corporation for National and Community Service noted that more than 21 million Americans 55 and older provide at least 2.2 billion hours of service in their communities — a gift of time and talent that, if one paid cash for, would cost in excess of $78 billion. Plus, it said, it helps “communities fill critical gaps in education, health care and other services.”
The difference in the number of volunteers cited by BLS and CNCS is because "older" is counted differently. The bureau includes those 65 and older, while CNCS programs count volunteers who are 55 and older.
Miller had volunteered with the Salvation Army in those other cities while he was still working. Back in Utah, with more time available, he’s upped his giving game to serve not only on the Salvation Army board, but also on the Salt Lake Aging and Adult Services Council. He’s a volunteer for the Salt Lake County Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, where he serves as a team leader who takes turns delivering Meals on Wheels to eight individuals each weekday.
It’s not simply a matter of knocking on the door and handing over a meal on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While the nutrition provided is part of the safety net for frail older adults, companionship and knowing someone would notice if one fell or couldn’t answer the door is important, too. Miller’s a thread in his community's safety net.
Volunteer Louis Miller, right, talks with Kendall E. McCoy after delivering a meal to him at his apartment in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
“The best part is meeting the people and talking to them. I might be the only person they see all day long. If I were dropping the food and leaving, it would be no fun at all,” Miller said. So he chats for a few minutes and helps with simple tasks if such help is needed.
His wife, Cyndy, has her own volunteer interests, including Big Brothers Big Sisters. What the couple give to the community matters to them — and so does what they get back in terms of life satisfaction, new relationships and both mental and physical well-being.
Meeting growing needs
The RSVP program and others like it rely on people 55 and older to provide services that might otherwise go undone, under the auspices of the Senior Corps. That group, in turn, is part of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees a number of national services, including AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund. CNCS has been going strong for nearly a quarter-century, though its future is far from assured.
The Trump administration’s budget for fiscal year 2018 has asked Congress to allocate only enough money to pay for an “orderly shutdown” and put CNCS on the list of agencies it would like to eliminate. Still, President Donald Trump recently tapped former Navy SEAL Carl Higbie as the agency’s chief of external affairs. And when the House Appropriations Committee advanced its own budget proposal, it funded CNCS at the same level as last year, according to Voices for National Service.
The impact the programs have on communities is indisputable. Just in the Senior Corps programs, 245,000 volunteers in the 2017 budget year spent 74.6 million hours helping 840,000 older adults remain independent by providing meals, companionship and other assistance to them in their homes. Senior Corps volunteers worked with 267,000 young people as tutors and mentors and in other roles. The volunteers also helped 332,100 veterans and their families.
While local needs determine which challenges these engaged older Americans tackle, the range is broad, from environmental projects to helping in natural disasters, delivering meals, providing companionship and assistance to keep people in their homes and communities or driving people who might otherwise not be able to get to doctors' appointments.
Louis Miller delivers a meal to Kendall E. McCoy at his apartment in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
Often, those medical appointments are life-sustaining: chemotherapy for cancer patients and physical therapy after a stroke, for instance, said Vicki Jo Hansen, who coordinates volunteers in Salt Lake County for RSVP. She said the program's Meals on Wheels volunteers form long-term friendships — some volunteers have been delivering meals and checking up on frail seniors for 10 to 15 years. Without them, many more people in dire need would be on waiting lists instead of being fed.
What volunteers contribute to programs is staggering. In Utah, for instance, CNCS noted what more than 3,200 seniors contribute in just three of its programs: Foster Grandparents tutor more than 5,000 young people, Senior Companions aid 1,100 homebound older Utahns and RSVP volunteers provide services through more than 340 groups.
Even with those thousands of volunteers, more are always needed, and some programs have waiting lists for services. Many nonprofit organizations and schools rely on older volunteers to accomplish the tasks for which there's inadequate funding or other resources, Hansen and others agree.
Efforts are made to match volunteers to the kind of activities they find stimulating and for which they can develop passion, said Hansen. "We want these (seniors) to think about what they like to do — and what they don't like to do. Some people don't know, so we ask what they like. A volunteer who loves to read may find great satisfaction tutoring. If that's not working out, we will try something else."
Volunteers in the Foster Grandparent Program work one-on-one with children who have special needs in various settings, such as schools, hospitals, correctional institutions and child care centers, among others. Low-income seniors may be eligible for a small stipend.
The Senior Companion program may also provide a small stipend to low-income people 55 and older who help frail seniors remain in their own homes by assisting them with routine activities like paying bills or grocery shopping, as well as providing friendship and offering some respite to family caregivers. Because low-income people get a small boost financially while providing services that would cost a great deal more, it's a win-win for communities, Hansen noted.
Louis Miller walks from an apartment building after delivering meals in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
Making a difference
Margaret Clark, 82, of Salt Lake City, has debilitating arthritis that makes it hard for her to go grocery shopping or cook for herself. But with Meals on Wheels, the octogenarian said she knows she can count on getting one nutritious meal a day, and she has the comfort of knowing that if she needs something small done — say, an item lifted down from a shelf she can't reach — her volunteer will help her.
She also knows that should something happen to her in her home, it wouldn't be long before help would be notified, because part of the job for a Meals on Wheels delivery volunteer is physically seeing and talking to the person receiving the nutritional aid.
Kendall McCoy, 70, of Salt Lake City, appreciates the program a lot. He briefly stopped getting Meals on Wheels, but he wasn't eating a well-balanced meal each day, and he could feel the impact on his health. "I didn't starve, but it wasn't a nutritious meal," he noted.
He enjoys visiting with the three volunteers who take turns during the week bringing his meals. He likes the variety and the company they provide.
"I'm pretty much homebound," he said, "very limited on my walking ability." He said that without transportation arranged by the county, he's not sure how he'd get to the doctor.
He's pretty impressed with how drivers are dispatched, he said. "It must be quite the operation." As long as he arranges it a week in advance, a volunteer driver picks up McCoy, drops him at his doctor's appointment, then heads off to transport someone else who needs a ride in the area. Usually, it's a different driver who takes him home.
"They try to keep the driver rolling, picking people up and taking them where they have to go," he said. "I am grateful."
Research shows that volunteers don't just positively impact their communities. They also reap some benefits for themselves — and for senior volunteers, perhaps particularly those who have retired, the benefits are significant.
When Senior Corps studied the health benefits of helping out, it found 46 percent of study participants said they had better health and well-being, two-thirds felt less isolated and two-thirds who had previously been isolated said they had better social connections. Seventy percent of those who had symptoms of depression said it decreased.
UnitedHealth Group published a study in 2013 called “Doing Good Is Good for You.” It noted volunteering improves health and mood. “Volunteering isn’t just something healthy people do,” the study said. “Our study involved a representative sample of adults across the country: young, old, in good health and in poor health. Remarkably, we see older individuals and those who suffer from multiple chronic conditions taking on volunteering — and feeling better as a result.”
The positive effects of volunteering, in fact, are greater than having adequate income or being married or one’s education level, according to an overview of current research hailed by the CNCS. The group noted it’s a particularly helpful activity for those who are at risk of isolation and for those who are living with stress, including an older person who is bereaved. Volunteering to make others’ lives better can help seniors better navigate transitions like retirement or becoming unemployed. On the physical side, being a volunteer increases brain activity and lessens depression.
Louis Miller leaves a meal in the refrigerator for a recipient who wasn't home in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
Ursula Staudinger, a psychologist, researcher and co-founder of the Columbia University aging center, which hosts an annual “Age Boom Academy” for journalists to highlight research on aging issues related to work and retirement, said folks who retire early without a plan to stay challenged can lose their cognitive ability.
Her research shows that being open to tackling new challenges and learning new things is “especially important” around retirement age because people are seeking ways to stay engaged and relevant.
Volunteering can help fill those gaps and provide meaning to people as they age.
It’s not unusual for older people to spend the last quarter of their lives “on a quest to understand their own purpose and meaning in life,” the Rev. Dr. William B. Randolph, national director of Aging and Older Adult Ministries for The United Methodist Church in Nashville, recently told the Deseret News.
Other experts and studies confirm the ongoing need of seniors to contribute to society and individuals in meaningful ways.
“I believe the key to life is that you’re using your talent to contribute — in my faith perspective, to bless God’s children. That’s where you have happiness,” said E. Jeffrey Hill, professor of family life at Brigham Young University. “Those who retire just to stop working and relax, it doesn’t work well for them. But those who retire to do something meaningful — and that’s where I think service opportunities are so great — they find joy, feel invigorated, life has meaning and, especially as you get older, that sense of meaning you have about life is key to health, to not dying, to mood.”
Volunteer Louis Miller talks about his meal delivery route with Vicki Jo Hansen, RSVP and division volunteer coordinator for Salt Lake County Aging & Adult Services, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
Having some aches and pains as one ages is normal, he noted, “but if you are engaged in something meaningful, you don’t focus on that,” he said.
Like Miller, Kathy Livingston, 73, of Sandy, is part of Salt Lake County’s 240-senior-strong RSVP volunteer force, though the work she does is very different. She describes as "empowering" the several hours she spends twice a week at the Literacy Action Center in the basement of the Salt Lake County Housing Authority building.
She helps adults who are overcoming learning challenges or striving to improve their literacy skills to get into college or find a better job. She works with homeless people who are learning to read better so they can change their life trajectory and with refugees who are trying to master reading English.
“Many of the people who come to us have been feeling bad about themselves for so long” because they feel they’re less capable than those who are more literate, she said.
More information about CNCS is available online at NationalService.gov. To volunteer with a local senior program, contact your area agency on aging.