New Thinking About Community Involvement
By Janet Strassman Perlmutter

What Our Society and Mature Adults Are – and Can Be – Doing to Set the Stage for Productive Later Years

What if it turns out that your years of greatest contribution are still ahead of you?

That’s the question rising in the minds – and studies – of many looking at the potential of older adults.

Former President Jimmy Carter is often cited as the prime example. Who could have attained a higher position in the work world? asks Marc Freedman, author of Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America. Yet, despite his years in the job cited as the most powerful on Earth, Carter is most acclaimed for his post-presidency service, building homes for the poor, negotiating peace settlements and monitoring fair elections worldwide.

We won’t all be Nobel Peace Prize winners in our later years, but the message holds true at any level. At 50 or 60, the average American has many healthy years left in his or her future. After we’ve met our career goals, secured an adequate income or pension … then what?

Some see this “third age,” the concluding decades of one’s life, as the “age of significance,” of adding purpose to one’s life. Even renowned psychologist Erik Erikson, who originally saw this as a stage of winding down, revised his views as he aged, encouraging people to plan for a meaningful retirement.

Win-Win Solutions

Experts in gerontology, public health and social policy are looking at the often unmet needs of post-midlife adults – needs for connection, activity and positive role definition – together with the unresolved problems of the world we live in. Today’s growing pool of post-parenting adults seems a rich resource just waiting to be tapped. Because, as John Gomperts, CEO of Experience Corps, which places volunteers age 55 and over as mentors and tutors in inner-city schools in 12 states across the country, points out, “Problems don’t always bend to the impact of policy. Often they require human involvement.”

Human involvement is how the core services of her hometown got built, recalls Elaine Kelton, a 60-something education advocate. When she moved to the now renowned community of Vail, it was, by Kelton’s description, “just dirt streets and few buildings.” She was an activist then, 40 years ago, and hasn’t let up since.

Back then it was about establishing a Montessori school, while her neighbors were creating a government structure, a hospital and other essentials of a developing community. Today, Kelton is active with Success by 6, working to make five-day-a-week kindergarten services accessible to all Colorado children.

Who Gets Involved?

Studies of those who become civically active, according to Susan Moses, a health policy analyst and co-director of Harvard School of Public Health-MetLife Foundation Initiative on Retirement and Civic Engagement, show that like Kelton, “people who volunteer more, do everything more,” meaning they also travel more, are more involved with family and are, generally, more active.

So Moses wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Kelton, a clothing retailer and a former restaurant and hotel owner, is also active on the board of the Vail Valley Foundation – promoting education, culture and athleticism in the valley – and supportive of her husband’s charitable work with the Vail Valley Medical Center Foundation, which is aimed at improving health services in underserved communities of Eagle County.

Myths and Realities

We’ve got lots of assumptions about people who volunteer, not all of them are borne out by fact. For instance, many believe retirement is the prime time for volunteerism. And those are the typical volunteers that John Boerger sees as director of Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) in La Junta. Because, for some, the opportunity to get active in one’s community rises only after the kids are taken care of and the career is winding down. Boerger matches volunteers – many of whom volunteer regularly well into their 90s – with 30 different nonprofit organizations in and around Pueblo.

Yet, community action concurrent with one’s prime, midlife years is actually more common than volunteerism in retirement, according to Moses and the findings of the Harvard-MetLife study. During those years, the connections are natural. It’s tough to say no when your child needs a den mother, PTA president or Little League coach. But many stop volunteering as their kids finish school.

Others get drawn in through work connections. Frank Day of Boulder offers one example through the charitable foundations he and his wife have established. Owner and chairman of the board at Rock Bottom Restaurants and president of Concept Restaurants, Day established the Rock Bottom Foundation to address hunger and homelessness in the communities where his restaurants do business.

When you’re employed, you’re more often in the public eye and more actively involved with others who know your skills. But in retirement, people typically grow more detached from their communities. Then civic involvement relies largely on an individual’s internal motivation.

Another fallacy has to do with the image of activism among the baby boomers, many of whom came of age in the politically active 1960s. The oldest baby boomers – now on the cusp of retirement age – are seen as the generation that could really establish a trend of civic involvement in their third age. Yet boomers, as a group, have a poor history of volunteerism. “Boomers are not joiners,” says Moses, of the Harvard-MetLife collaboration.

Will their latent activism surface as this generation nears or enters retirement age? Many recall the social activism to which President Kennedy rallied the country when today’s 50- and 60-somethings were first entering the workforce. It remains to be seen to what degree this potential will be harnessed.

Paving the Way

A cluster of organizations is looking at ways to improve the rate of civic involvement among the over-50 set. Prime Time author Freedman heads up Civic Ventures, which Gomperts, a staff member, describes as an “action tank” or “an incubator” of new types of community action organizations.

Gomperts’ Experience Corps is one such organization, working on the dual mission of providing older adults with substantial social action opportunities, while also combating the ageist notion that older people are a burden on society. “In fact, they’re a tremendous resource!” reminds this former chief of staff at the Corporation for National Service.

According to Gomperts, our society still pictures a life span that’s no longer accurate, one in which people “retire at 65, become infirm, and die” in fairly short order.

With that mind-set, not enough organizations are making substantial roles available for adults who want to get involved, according to “Reinventing Aging,” a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health-MetLife Foundation Initiative on Retirement and Civic Engagement. These organizations find that not enough adults have been encouraged to really think through the question, “What will I do with the rest of my life?”

The Harvard-MetLife group is now working on a media campaign to address many of these issues. Even the term “volunteer” is being reassessed. “It’s not necessarily an admired role,” Moses notes with regret.

Moreover, “Why doesn’t society have expectations and roles for older people?” she asks.

Work is also under way to help people plan for their social needs in retirement. Then there are also “infrastructure” issues, Moses says, explaining that “organizations will need to become able to absorb these volunteers or else they’ll lose them.”

Making a Difference

Even without these new approaches to community action, volunteers do incredible things. Just ask RSVP’s Boerger about the two volunteers who decided in their retirement to establish the Otero County Museum.

According to Boerger, the two, then in their 70s, wrote the grants, formed the committees and solicited the artifacts to showcase the history of this ranching and farming community. The museum now encompasses a restored homestead, an antique fire engine and materials related to the former World War II Air Force training base for bomber pilots.

But more adults could get involved in community service, and folks like Gomperts, Freedman and Moses are working to increase the numbers, the influence and the level of satisfaction of those who do.

Because, like Boerger says of his volunteers who range in age from their 50s to their 90s, “these are all people who still want to add value to their community. It helps people feel useful. And they are useful.”

People’s motivations for civic involvement are wide-ranging. Day, for example, says of his Rock Bottom Foundation, “It’s good for a successful business to lend a helping hand in the community.” And while he notes that the publicity can’t hurt, it’s also about wanting to give back.

Day, now in his early 70s, says he came to look at his assets and recognized that he wanted to do more than pass them all on to his heirs. “My kids, my grandkids, they’re doing fine,” he says. “I decided I wanted to help those not doing so well, help them become better contributors.”

No matter what your motivation – leaving a legacy, creating a better world for your grandkids or someone else’s, or sheer altruism – civic involvement has also been documented to have health benefits for those who participate. Among the recent research documenting these advantages is a study by the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins. Published in the April 2004 issue of the Journal of Urban Health, the scientific study showed how those who engaged in volunteer activities increased their cognitive activity, had fewer falls, improved their social networking and exhibited greater strength. We know now that the keys to longevity are, says Moses: “Eat right. Exercise. And stay engaged.”

“Pass it forward. That’s all we can do in life,” says Kelton, reflecting on the recent movie, Pay It Forward, in which kids begin a chain of charitable acts, asking only that the recipient do something worthwhile for others. “The most wonderful part of life is passing it forward,” says the Vail volunteer.

Read More:
Getting Involved: 
5  ways in which everyday folks can use their skills to create social change.



Better Together: Restoring the American Community, by Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein, Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Gaining Health While Giving Back to the Community,” by Linda P. Fried, M.D., et al, Journal of Urban Health, April 2004; summarized at

My Time: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life, by Abigail Trafford, Basic Books, 2003.

Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement, by Marc Freedman, Perseus Books, 1999.

Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement,” Harvard School of Public Health, June 2004. See also

ThirdAge Health and Wellness, an online newsletter available through links to numerous ways to get involved.


Civic Ventures, San Francisco, 415-430-0141,; works to transform the aging of America into a source of individual and social renewal.

Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) operates from 17 Colorado locations. It is a program of Senior Corps, to “tap the experience, skills, and talents of older citizens to meet community challenges.” Go to, or check telephone directory assistance for the Senior Corps or RSVP office in your community.