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Older Americans Present Big Challenges, Bigger Opportunities
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Stuart Hales
May 21, 2007

Clara Barton was ahead of her time—in more ways than one.

Many Red Cross chapters provide services to older Americans, and the need for them will continue to grow.
Many Red Cross chapters provide services to older Americans, and the need for them will continue to grow.

When the founder of the American Red Cross turned 65 on Christmas Day in 1886, she was in select company: In the late 1800s, only one in every 25 Americans were 65 or older. Today, roughly one in eight are senior citizens, and 6,000 more are turning 65 every day.

This "graying" of America presents both challenges and opportunities for the American Red Cross in attracting new volunteers and delivering programs and services. Older Americans Month (May) is a time to reflect on these challenges and opportunities, which will only grow more compelling in the coming months and years.

Improving Community Life

Because seniors tend to be fully or at least semi-retired, they typically have more time to devote to volunteering than adults or youth, making them invaluable to charitable and other nonprofit organizations. They also bring with them a strong social ethos—surveys over the years have found that most seniors and those who are nearing 65 believe it is important that work in retirement improve the quality of life in their community.

These attributes have long made senior citizens a key source of volunteers for American Red Cross chapters and Blood Services regions. Older Americans comprise approximately 21 percent of Red Cross volunteers, a higher incidence than every other age group except adults ages 25-64. Thanks in part to Hurricane Katrina, the ranks of older Red Cross volunteers have swelled dramatically in recent months, rising from almost 190,000 in 2005 to more than 235,000 in 2006.

What makes the Red Cross such a popular choice for older Americans looking to help their communities? Research shows that seniors are looking for meaningful volunteer experiences that provide opportunities for personal growth and social interaction. The American Red Cross, with its lifesaving services and programs ranging from disaster preparedness and relief to first aid and emergency breathing to water safety to blood collection, offers an ideal environment for seniors looking to volunteer their time and talents.

"Red Cross volunteers don't feel like extras in a movie—they're the main actors," said Kate Forbes, National Chair of Volunteers. "That's because volunteers comprise 97 percent of our workforce, so we rely on them to fulfill our mission of providing relief to victims of disasters and helping people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies."

Preparing for Emergencies

In addition to providing volunteer opportunities for older citizens, the American Red Cross is continuing to look for new ways to serve them. Transportation and food service programs ("Meals on Wheels") for the elderly have long been popular at many chapters, as have projects that target seniors in hospitals, veterans centers and assisted living facilities.

With meteorologists forecasting an active and unpredictable year of weather—as of this writing, the first named tropical storm of 2007, Andrea, is churning off the coast of Florida, wildfires are burning in California, Minnesota, Georgia, and Florida, and flooding rivers and streams have forced thousands to flee their homes in the Midwest—some Red Cross chapters are focusing on preparing seniors for disasters.

Although many seniors are healthy and mentally alert, they can be particularly vulnerable to disasters and emergency situations. They may need assistance to see, hear, or walk, or they may be taking prescription medications to address minor health issues.

The Red Cross urges all Americans, but especially older Americans, to take three steps to become "Red Cross Ready" for an emergency:

  • Make a plan;
  • Get a kit; and
  • Be informed.

The American Red Cross has developed an online presentation (see link below) to help seniors and others better understand complete these three steps. In addition, the Red Cross has joined with other community-based organizations to launch a preparedness Website targeted toward vulnerable populations, including seniors. One of the resources on that site is a brochure, Disaster Preparedness for Seniors by Seniors, written by several older adults who were caught unprepared by a massive ice storm that hit upstate New York several years ago.

Seniors are also encouraged to tell family members and friends about the Safe and Well Website (see link below) and use it in the event a disaster strikes. The site allows those affected by a disaster to register as "safe and well" and select a standard message to communicate to loved ones. Concerned family members and friends can search the list of those who have registered themselves and read the selected message.

The American Red Cross helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. Last year, almost a million volunteers and 35,000 employees helped victims of almost 75,000 disasters; taught lifesaving skills to millions; and helped U.S. service members separated from their families stay connected. Almost 4 million people gave blood through the Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The American Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.

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