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One idea for an aging America: a volunteer corps of caregivers

A federal agency is exploring a national volunteer program modeled after the Peace Corps to help care for the booming elderly population.
An arm of the Department of Health and Human Services is taking steps to establish a National Volunteer Care Corps that would recruit healthy retirees and young adults to help seniors live independently. The ranks of Americans age 85 and up are set to swell to 14.6 million in 2040, up from more than 6 million now. [Times (2010)]
An arm of the Department of Health and Human Services is taking steps to establish a National Volunteer Care Corps that would recruit healthy retirees and young adults to help seniors live independently. The ranks of Americans age 85 and up are set to swell to 14.6 million in 2040, up from more than 6 million now. [Times (2010)]
Published Oct. 11

Imagine a government program that would mobilize volunteers to help older adults across the nation age in place. One is on the way.

The Administration for Community Living, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is taking steps to establish a National Volunteer Care Corps.

If it’s successful, healthy retirees and young adults would take seniors to doctor appointments, shop for groceries, shovel snowy sidewalks, make a bed or mop the floor, or simply visit a few times a week.

RELATED: Visit the Times Health page for news and information affecting you and your family.

Older adults would not only get a hand with household tasks, but also companionship and relief from social isolation. And family caregivers could get a break.

Younger volunteers might get class credit at a community college or small stipends. Older volunteers could enjoy a satisfying sense of purpose.

There’s no question the need is enormous, as the ranks of the oldest Americans ― those age 85 and up, who tend to have multiple chronic illnesses and difficulty performing daily tasks ― are set to swell to 14.6 million in 2040, up from more than 6 million now.

Who will care for these seniors? More than 34 million unpaid family caregivers currently shoulder that responsibility, along with 3.3 million paid personal care and home health aides. (Medicare does not pay for long-term care services or non-medical services in the home.)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1.2 million new paid jobs of this kind will be needed by 2028. But filling them will be hard, given low pay, difficult work conditions, limited opportunities for professional advancement and high turnover.

This notion of a domestic Peace Corps for caregiving, if you will, has been circulating since 2013, when it surfaced in a Twitter chat on elder care. In 2017 and 2018, bills introduced in Congress proposed a demonstration project, unsuccessfully.

Now, four organizations will spearhead the Care Corps project: the Oasis Institute, which runs the nation’s largest volunteer intergenerational tutoring program; the Caregiver Action Network; the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging; and the Altarum Institute, which works to improve care for vulnerable older adults.

The initial grant to the group is $3.8 million; total funding for the five-year project is expected to be $19 million, according to Greg Link, director of the ACL’s office of supportive and caregiver services.

This fall, project leaders will invite organizations across the country to submit proposals to serve “non-medical” needs of older adults and younger adults with disabilities. Next spring, up to 30 organizations will get 18-month grants of $30,000 to $250,000, according to Juliet Simone, director of national health at the Oasis Institute.

The goal is to discover innovative, effective programs that offer services to diverse communities (geographic, racial and ethnic) and that can be replicated in multiple locations.

“We want the organizations that apply to be very flexible and creative,” said Anne Montgomery, deputy director of Altarum’s Program to Improve Eldercare. “And we’re aiming to create a volunteer infrastructure that can last and be sustainable.”

All volunteers will undergo background checks and training, and there will be an emphasis on evaluating program results.

“We want to be able to say, ‘Here are the services that people really need, and these are the types of things that work well for specific populations,’” said John Schall, CEO of the Caregiver Action Network. Services could include preparing meals, taking seniors to church or home-based tech support for computer users, among many other possibilities.

Care Corps faces several challenges. A big one: The grant is tiny, compared with the trillions of dollars spent on health care. It could take a long time to build it into a national effort that attracts more investment.

Project leaders are optimistic. To nonprofit organizations working in the aging field, “it’s a lot of money ― they can do quite a lot with these grants,” said Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. Programs may find ways to license successful models, and local and national foundations may step in with additional support, Simone said.

Recruiting volunteers could be another challenge. At the Center for Volunteer Caregiving in Cary, N.C., which has been providing “friendly visiting,” transportation and caregiver respite services for 27 years, “it’s the biggest issue we face,” said executive director Elaine Whitford.

Because her organization focuses on building relationships with seniors, it asks volunteers to commit to at least a year. “We get a lot of interest,” Whitford said, “then people realize that this just isn’t going to fit into their schedule.”

Helen Anderson, 86, has sickle cell disease, lupus and chronic pain. She lives alone in a Cary apartment. Without help from the center’s volunteers, three women and a man who’ve taken her shopping, cleaned her apartment and done her laundry since 2008, she said, “I could not live independently.”

Scores of volunteer programs serving seniors and people with disabilities already exist, but most are small and many older adults and their families don’t know about them. How they’ll interact with the Care Corps is not yet clear.

One of the largest is Seniors Corps, run by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Through its Senior Companion program, volunteers age 55 and older visit needy older adults and help them with tasks such as shopping or paying bills. About 10,500 volunteers spend 15 to 20 hours a week, on average, serving 33,000 seniors through this program.

Recent research from Senior Corps demonstrates that volunteers receive benefits while giving to others ― a finding confirmed by a large body of research. After two years of service, 88% of Senior Corps volunteers reported feeling less isolated, while 78% said they felt less depressed.

To learn if Service Corps’ companion program is available near you, use this new tool on its website. The group also offers less intensive services to 300,000 older adults and people with disabilities through its Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

To learn about other volunteer programs in your community, contact a local senior center, a nearby Area Agency on Aging or your county’s department of aging, experts suggest. ACL’s Eldercare Locator can help you identify these organizations.

Another source is the National Volunteer Caregiving Network, which lists about 700 programs, most of them church-based, on its website.

“Volunteer caregiving can make the difference between someone having quality of life and not having any at all,” said Inez Russell, board chair of the organization. She’s also the founder of Friends for Life, a Texas program that offers volunteer aid to seniors trying to live independently and that reaches out to seniors who don’t have family members on birthdays and holidays, among other services. Altogether, the two programs reach about 4,000 people a year.

In Montpelier, Vt., Joan Black, who’s 88 and lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment, has been a member of Onion River Exchange ― a time bank ― for 10 years. Onion River members contribute goods and services (a ride to the airport, a homemade casserole, a newly knit baby sweater) to the time bank and receive goods and services in exchange. For years, Black gave out information about the exchange at farmers markets and other community events ― her way of banking credits.

It’s a form of volunteerism that “creates a sense of community for many people,” said Edisa Muller, chairwoman of the Onion River board.

For Black, who lives on a small fixed income and can’t vacuum, scrub her tub, dust her wooden furniture or shovel the driveway that leads to her apartment, participating in the time bank has become a way to meet new people and remain integrated with the community.

“I like a tidy house: When things are out of order, I’m out or order,” she said. “I don’t believe I’d be able to do everything I do or live the way I do without their help.”

This story was written by Judith Graham of Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. Contact Judith Graham at khn.navigatingaging@gmail.com. Follow @judith_graham.


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