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Found: Older Volunteers to Fill Labor Shortage

Resource type: News

The New York Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

This New York Times article features two Atlantic ageing programme grantees — Civic Ventures and the Rose Community Foundation. Both organisations engage older people in encore careers and volunteer positions that combine personal meaning and social impact to solve society’s greatest problems. The Rose Community Foundation received a re-grant from Atlantic grantee Community Initiatives

By Elizabeth Pope

Policy makers and pundits warn that the baby boom wave could swamp the nation’s health care system. What if the 77 million boomers, who have just begun to turn 65, could help solve the health care crisis?

“There’s a lot of talk about the challenges that boomers will present to health care, but we see them as our country’s greatest natural resource,” said Barbara Raynor, managing director of Boomers Leading Change in Health in Denver.

Her 18-month-old program, financed by the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, trains older adults as volunteer patient navigators, advocates and community health workers assigned to local organizations serving city residents. Some 125 older adults have been trained as navigators or community health workers who help individuals and families master the intricacies of the health care system. Another 300 volunteers are advocates who educate others about health care issues in formal and informal settings.

At the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, also in Denver, older volunteers help teach health literacy, arrange transportation and accompany Bhutanese and Burmese refugees and immigrants to medical appointments, said Brandy Kramer, the institute’s volunteer coordinator. “Our boomers are wonderful advocates for our community members; they are tenacious and won’t take no for an answer from a health care provider.”

Through local providers, volunteers have helped the institute’s clientele acquire free or low-cost hearing aids, eyeglasses and even a new set of teeth. Other volunteers have untangled Medicare bills, advised when (and when not) to call 911 and coached diabetics on healthy diet and exercise.

Encouraged by the 2010 health care act’s emphasis on primary care, care coordination and chronic disease management, pilot programs are emerging to try to improve the fragmented medical system.

Many programs rely on coaches, navigators and advocates. The paid or unpaid work they do is well suited to older adults seeking encore careers, said Phyllis N. Segal, a vice president of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based research group.

While there are no firm numbers on new programs, she said, “this area is poised to explode because of expanding needs for health prevention and services.” Entrepreneurs will also find opportunities to start small businesses in consumer-centered care, she added.

The federal government’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation recently dedicated $1 billion in grants to develop new ideas to improve care and lower costs for Medicare, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program beneficiaries.

Here is a look at three ways older adults are working to try to solve the nation’s health care troubles.


Jenkintown, Pa.

Ten years ago, doctors told Im Ja Choi that nothing more could be done for her 85-year-old mother, who was battling stomach cancer and weighed only 62 pounds. A nursing home was out of the question because the older woman spoke no English and did not eat American food. Ms. Choi, a former financial executive, cared for her mother at home for seven months until she found a Korean-speaking home health aide.

That experience prompted Ms. Choi to start Pennsylvania’s first small business providing Korean-speaking home health aides to the immigrant community. Today Penn Asian Senior Services trains and provides aides who speak eight languages.

“Asian people need more information to navigate the health care system,” Ms. Choi said. “I have a master’s degree, and it was hard enough for me to wait in line at Social Security, go home and call them back two days later, then be put on hold. If you don’t have the language, you give up.”

Nearly two years ago, her mother died at age 93. “No one expected she would live more than 100 days,” said Ms. Choi, who is now caring for her 91-year-old mother-in-law with an aide’s help.


San Jose, Calif.

John H. Arnold, a former senior finance executive at Pepsi, Novartis and Levi Strauss, wanted substantive work with lasting social impact in his encore career.

“I didn’t want to be a consultant who delivers another report that just gets filed on a shelf,” he said. “And I didn’t want to stuff envelopes at a nonprofit, either.”

Today he is devising cash-management procedures for La Clínica de La Raza of Oakland, Calif., a large community-based consortium of clinics. Mr. Arnold is one of 15 former corporate professionals in the Encore Fellows in California Community Clinics program, financed by the California HealthCare Foundation.

Fellows, who may have earned six figures in the corporate world, receive a $25,000 stipend for a part-time one-year assignment. Community clinics receive high-level help with marketing, human resources and strategic planning as they struggle to cope with budget shortfalls, branding and compliance measures mandated by changes in health care. The fellowship program, which now operates in the San Francisco Bay Area and California’s Central Valley, is expected to expand to other areas of the state.

Mr. Arnold is encouraging friends with financial backgrounds to volunteer with nonprofit organizations. “Financial people are sometimes stereotyped as conservative and perhaps not as imaginative as the marketing people,” he said. “But I tell my peers there are ways to make a good transition from your primary career and still make a difference.”



Arlin Raedeke, a volunteer patient navigator at the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, knew many of the organization’s Burmese and Bhutanese refugees. Many immigrants were unfamiliar with preventive medicine.

“Some of the elderly may never have seen a dentist before, and they are deathly afraid of the idea,” he said. “A numbed mouth might send them into a panic.”

Many elders chew betel nut, which may cause oral cancer.

When Mr. Raedeke learned of a local program offering free dental insurance to low-income families, he helped sign up 30 people at the institute, visited dentists to explain language and cultural barriers, then arranged transportation and attended dental appointments.

One woman, who used to cover her damaged teeth with her hand when she smiled, received nearly $12,000 of dental work from a sympathetic dentist.

“I find it very rewarding to help people who may be totally lost and confused by our health care system,” said Mr. Raedeke, a former manager in the computer industry. “I wish there weren’t so many lawyers writing the paperwork; it confuses me, and I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who don’t speak good English.”

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Global Impact:

United States


Civic Ventures, health care, Rose Community Foundation, volunteerism