Older Volunteers

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Older volunteers (shall we say, 50+?) bring special gifts to their setting.  They can also experience unique challenges.  I'd like to start a thread dedicated to us older V's: our insights and perspectives in a program that is very often slanted toward the needs of younger volunteers. 

A good place to start may be a discussion of *older volunteers as informal mentors to younger volunteers*.  What are your experiences with mentoring?  Any good stories?  Boundary issues? 

Here are some other topics:

  • Healthcare challenges for older volunteers
  • Supervision by people who are decades younger than you
  • Moving and starting anew in a new community
  • Resilience and self-care
  • Structural agism in the workplace

Here's some information I've been picking up on older volunteers.  From the Organization for National and Community Service website, I've attached a little bit of information on older volunteers in general across the US and over time.  The punchline is that, after a bump in volunteering following 9/11, numbers have declined about 5-10%.  The level of volunteering for older adults has remained more or less steady at about 24%.  

I asked folks at VISTA how many older volunteers were in the program, and got this response:

*******

Hello Ralph,

My name is Brian, and I’m VISTA’s data analyst. Here is the figure you requested:

  • 6% of VISTA members are over 50 years old

Let me know if you have any other questions. Thank you for your service!

Warm regards, Brian Mitterer

*****

So, no wonder I'm talking to myself here.  Older volunteers are quite scarce in VISTA.

Ralph

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Hi Ralph.

I'm not 50+, but I am closer to that than I am to the folks taking a "gap year" to do Americorp. I am hoping for a good year with minimal awkwardness at the trainings, but a lot of that is up to me.

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Hi Ralph, 

I'm a VISTA Leader, and I have a VISTA that is decades older than me. The mention of "supervision by people that are decades younger than you" caught my eye. One thing I've struggled with this year is knowing the needs of someone in a place I have never been. In your opinion, what ways can VISTA Leaders and Supervisors best support the older VISTAs? What are some needs you may have that we might not anticipate? 

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Hi Christine, Thanks for visiting my forum!  I bet others are facing this dilemma as well.  It's a serious question deserving of a thoughtful answer.

What are the ego needs of an older person interacting with a younger supervisor?  I suspect competence is right up there at the top.  We all want to look competent to others.  The older supervisee might come across as being a Know-it-all, or even condescending to you.  It takes a special skill to not be defensive and speak to the person’s competence needs rather than to their irritating condescending attitude:  “You’ve got a lot of skills.  How do you want to grow your skills in this position? How can I help you?”

Some older supervisees may experience an ego injury that comes from role reversal: culturally, elders are “supposed to” be the bosses and mentors.  If the dissonance is too great for the older adult to overcome, this may manifest itself in defensive rebellion or passive undermining of the supervisory relationship.   Again, it can be hard to address the supervisee’s ego injury and not the way the injury manifests itself.  “When I see you do x, y and z, it makes me think you’re having problems with my role as your supervisor.  What’s your interpretation?  What can we do about this?”

As an older white male social worker, a lot of the time I find myself in positions where the people I need to work with or supervise are different on a number of demographic axes (age, race, gender, etc.).  Here are a few common-sense guidelines I use:

  1. I do “research” on that difference.  It might mean doing real research on line or reading news articles or books about a culture, or keeping my radar tuned to subtle differences in interaction with the person.  Though it’s dangerous to generalize, here are some issues older supervisees might be concerned about: enough money for retirement, health, death, relationships with children and grandchildren, the state of the world for the next generation.  The older supervisee may have a communication style that involves storytelling (we older people have accumulated LOTS of stories!).
  2. I try to stay humble.  If it’s appropriate, I tell the person in one way or another that I don’t know the other person’s experience, and so might make mistakes in interaction, but my goal is to be respectful of their experience and to learn from the mistakes I make.  Other times, when appropriate, I’ll ask the other person to tell me stories about their life and experience so I can understand.  I love hearing stories that people tell (as long as I make the time for it), and as I said, older people have lots of stories. 
  3. I try to maintain a sense of humor about myself.  I know I’ll make mistakes, and so I might as well not take myself too seriously.
  4. I try to empty myself of my own ego needs in the interaction so I can hear and understand the other person completely.  Study Mr. Rogers!   The oldest rule in social work is “start where the client is at”, which means that I figure out what the other person wants and needs from their life, their VISTA experience, and from their interaction with me (“how can I help you?”).
  5. If I need to supervise someone who is different on some demographic variable, I try as hard as I can to discover and use their communication style, make my expectations clear (writing them down helps), learn their own goals and expectations, and then humbly work with the person to facilitate their success in meeting both their expectations and mine. 

Good luck, Christine!  Thanks for the question.

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Hello, All!

I am 50+ . Just wanted you to know I am out there. I have talked up my Vista experience to others in my demographic as a good coasting into retirement or into a new career experience. I am enjoying the opportunity to use my skills within a current context. I had worked in academia since 2011 and found I had stepped out of my field for too long. 

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Hi Marie, 

Thanks for contributing.  I agree, VISTA is an excellent strategy if you want to retire but don't want to start collecting social security.  We're doing just that: using this experience to stretch out our time between retirement and collecting our SS pensions.

Ralph

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Hello -  I'm knocking on the door to your age criteria so I thought I would say 'hi'.       I'm usually reserved anyway - so some of the awkardness so far would have probably happened when I was back in my 20s anyway. 

I think the oddball challenge I have right now is that I took COBRA because I had a month gap between my last job & VISTA starting - and am learning as a surpise that the decision to have Cobra could jepordize my Medicaid or their consideration of Americorp start date as a 'life event.     With the information I had that was the best way to keep an adult son covered (He just got coverage 8/1) .  I'm less than 60 days from start - so hopefully it'll work itself out - it just says 'pending further review' - but from phone calls with healthcare.gov  - imagine it will at least involve an appeal.   I may be stuck tossing some high $ out the window if I have to continue my coverage at the COBRA rates but it'll still be worth doing a year with VISTA.    I imagine this may be an oddball scenario - but wonder if other older adults had to transition healthcare too?

On a happier note -   I was at a company for more than a decade  - so getting out & about in the real world during the week has been fantastic.   I have to pace myself for the project I've got - but hopefully will have a sense of helping people too.

Thanks for starting this thread.

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Hi Pamela, 

My wife is about six month from her 65th birthday and Medicare, so she's had to select a medical plan from the Affordable Care Act.  What she DIDN'T know until she went to the pre-service orientation is that Americorps will give you free medical care for the first 60 days of service.  That's quite a help for us -- only four months of high medical premiums until Medicare.  Does this information help you?

Ralph

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Thanks - although my situation might be a little different - thanks for bringing that possibility up- I will give them a call and see if that can be an options vs. the pushback I heard about having COBRA coverage.

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Hello to all,  I will be starting my Vista assignment soon, I too am an older Vista. I am looking forward to doing my project and wish the best for all of you. Nice to meet you all

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