Older adult volunteers reap the rewards of giving back

Volunteers Joe Capra and Jean Barker.

Most mornings, 90-year-old Joe Capra drives his Cadillac around town to local bakeries and coffee spots and delivers the goodies to the hospitality center at Leisure World that opens every day at 9am. Capra, who has lived in the sprawling retirement community in Orange County town of Seal Beach for 13 years, was recently recognized for logging about 3,500 hours of picking up breakfast treats for his fellow residents. The former U.S. Navy nurse is in great physical health, doesn’t drink or smoke and walks a mile and a half a day. But Capra said volunteering is an important part of his health regimen.

“My doctor told me, I love you doing this, Joe, because you are helping people,” he said. “He said it’s good for your health and that’s true…It makes me feel better and I’m not stressed out at all.”

This article is one in an occasional series on aging with dignity, independent living and public policy that affects both. For a complete archive of the articles, click here.

Capra is one of more than 150 senior volunteers with the Golden Age Foundation, a nonprofit group that formed at the retirement community more than 38 years ago with the goal of making the golden years as enjoyable as possible for their neighbors. Like many other retirement communities, Leisure World offers its 8,000 residents, who must be older than 55, a cornucopia of entertainment options, including golf, card games, dancing, theatrical productions, poetry workshop and even jewelry making.

Many Leisure World residents say one of the best features is the dedicated cadre of peer volunteers who provide essential services for free, sometimes after hours. Besides the hospitality center where coffee and treats are on the house, Foundation volunteers have logged thousands of hours distributing wheelchairs and walkers for free to people in need. They have hooked up Lifeline units—a medical alert emergency response service—so frail Leisure World residents are connected to emergency providers in case they fall. The Foundation also sponsors free income tax reporting assistance from volunteers trained by the Internal Revenue Service so residents don’t get overcharged elsewhere. Leisure World volunteers also help run a free flu shot program every fall for thousands of their fellow seniors. A testament to Leisure World residents’ appreciation for these services is that the Foundation’s $80,000 annual budget comes from the donations and bequests of Leisure World residents.

Joyce Vlaic, the president of the Golden Age Foundation, said the program helps both volunteers and recipients connect at a time of life when people tend to become isolated.

“The whole purpose is to make life a little bit easier for elderly residents,” said Vlaic, who is 72. “The more you give, the more you get back, and the more you socialize the better it is for your mental health and physical health.”

Studies have supported that idea. A recent report, “The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research,” documents findings from more than 30 research studies that focused on the relationship between health and volunteering. The report by Corporation for National and Community Service found that volunteerism was linked to greater longevity, higher functioning, lower rates of depression, and less incidence of heart disease. In a longitudinal study of individuals over 70 who volunteered approximately 100 hours had less of a decline in self-reported health and functioning levels, experienced lower levels of depression, and lived longer. One study of adults age 65 and older found that the “positive effect of volunteering on physical and mental health is due to the personal sense of accomplishment an individual gains from his or her volunteer activities.”

California state policies have long promoted volunteerism among the elderly, California’s State Plan on Aging 2009-2013 dedicated economic stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to the Senior Community Service Employment Program. The program placed older individuals in community service positions noting that seniors represent enormous civic potential, and are underutilized. Government estimates predict that the population of Californians over age 60 will climb to 8.9 million by 2020.

Thousands of seniors throughout California are actively involved in volunteering in programs that assist other older adults, persons with disabilities, and family caregivers every day, said Lora Connolly, the Acting Director, California Department of Aging.

Volunteers are delivering meals to the elderly, escorting and transporting frail older people to health care services, and offering social support.

“Without these dedicated volunteers, the network of aging services providers throughout the state would never be able to serve as many people as we do every year,” Connolly said. “Volunteers are the backbone of so many of our programs.”

Programs for seniors and persons with disabilities are funded through a combination of federal, state and local sources. In the state budget passed in June, cuts to the Medi-Cal program, including the elimination of the Adult Day Health Care program, will have a significant impact on health services for many low income older adults.

Leisure World residents, who tend to be better off financially, are largely insulated from those cuts. But the state budget also lowers supplemental security income benefits to the federal minimum, which means that free wheelchairs, flu shots and breakfasts will be even more welcome than before.

Capra and his fellow volunteers, wearing bright red vests emblazoned with the Golden Age Foundation logo, were busily filling up coffee pots and delivering cakes to a noisy crowd at the Hospitality Center one recent morning. The atmosphere is upbeat, with laughter at each table and a piano player entertaining the crowd snappy tunes in the back of the hall. Open from 9am to 11am, the center serves between 3,000 and 4,000 people a month. All the food is donated from local bakeries.

Jean Barker, holding a tray of goodies, described the hospitality center as a great social outlet. “When I first came here, I didn’t do anything but organize my apartment,” said the 84-year-old Barker. “But then I found out we had a women’s club, and the health care center needed workers and the conference room needed workers so I went and volunteered for that.”

Volunteer Dave Tubbs spends a lot of his time thinking about the health of his fellow residents. The active 84-year-old goes to peoples’ homes and delivers Lifeline equipment, which is purchased by the foundation. Residents pay a nominal monthly fee to be electronically linked to an emergency response center.

Tubbs, who also runs the Foundation’s mobility aids donation program, said they have a fleet of more than 600 wheelchairs and 1,200 walkers. He and other Leisure World volunteers pick up and deliver the equipment free of charge and loan them to residents for as long as they need them. Residents might come home from hospital and need one for an extended period or just require one for traveling. There’s also a volunteer repairman on hand, who makes sure the equipment is kept in good working order.

“I enjoy helping people out with all the good things we can do for them,” said Tubbs, on his way to delivering a wheelchair to a fellow resident. “People really appreciate it when we take them something they really need.”

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