Engage Older Adults
Volunteer management is a well-developed field, with an abundance of resources available for you to build on. It’s important to remember, though, that there are many other ways to engage older adults in high-impact community roles, including matching older adults to meaningful employment opportunities. Moreover, in both volunteer and paid contexts, the work of engaging older adults is in some ways different from that of engaging people in the early and middle years of life.
As a population group, older adults are multidimensional, with knowledge, experience, and perspective honed over many years. They represent multiple distinct age groups and varying perceptions of who they are, what they’ve experienced, and how they relate to others. Socio-cultural diversity within the population includes variation in employment status, educational attainment, household income, responsibility in raising young family members, use of technology, and intergenerational interest.
Many older adults have lived in a particular community all their lives and offer great historical perspective, while others are relative newcomers (by way of immigration, relocation, or retirement) and may have less-developed connection to the community as a whole, but strong desire to contribute and establish roots.
The nature of the work, relationships, and organizing model will shape your approach to recruitment and ongoing engagement of older adults.
Develop your outreach strategy.
Develop multidimensional marketing strategies. One message or strategy doesn’t fit all. Find messaging to appeal to a variety of groups, abilities, interests, and stages of life. Seek feedback and alter messages and strategies as you learn what works.
Choose language carefully. An individual’s community, culture, and socioeconomic status all affect reactions to and resonance with project vocabulary. Be attuned to the language used to describe the people (older adults, seniors, elders, age 60+, boomers), their participation (volunteer, participant, advocate, contributor), how they become involved (apply, join), and how you are describing their work (volunteering, helping to strengthen their community, working as change agents, fighting to solve an urgent problem, building a better world for our children and their children).
Be intentional about inviting older adults to participate. Many communities have found that promotion of a program or opportunity by word of mouth and personal invitations is the most successful for activating interest and attracting older adults. Open the doors to potential participants with informational and social gatherings.
Engage older adults for the cause rather than a task or role. Then, help them find their place within that cause by exploring their interests, skills, experiences, talents, connections, and insights. Personal passion for an issue is critical.
Consider the powerful personal impact participation can have. Facilitate connections among older adults. Build a community for networking related to the work, and also for building informal relationships between participants. Peer connections can shape their understanding of their own work and its value, help clarify goals and priorities, and show them the force that older adults can have in their communities. Provide recognition, offer encouragement, and create energy to help them make an impact.
Build a supportive framework.
Develop jobs that really matter. Older adults want to know their time is well spent and that it directly impacts outcomes. Provide training to prepare participants for roles, enlighten them on latest research, and deepen relationships with other stakeholders.
Create a supportive environment. Engage participants as colleagues. Effective management shows respect for a volunteer’s or an employee’s time, while opportunities for social interaction help to create a team atmosphere. Flexible scheduling, regular feedback, and recognition from leadership of the older adult’s vital role in achieving the organization’s mission will re-energize passion and commitment. Orientation and training help to better prepare older adults for roles, and also familiarize the organization with the participant. Clear expectations, roles, directions, tasks, and responsibilities are important, as are access to technical assistance and opportunities for continuous learning.
Offer a range of roles and opportunities. Build a structured system of engagement that provides as many access points as possible for people at all stages of readiness (those with a clear sense of purpose as well as those who don’t know what they have to offer). Creating a range of flexible, recurring, and sporadic opportunities allows participants to choose their level of commitment and involvement, and accommodates varying levels of confidence, determination, focus, flexibility, and availability. The ability to shape their experience is key for many older adults and recognizes they have busy lives that may also include commitments to family, work, caregiving, health, and personal growth.
Invest in skill building. By building the capacity of older adult leaders, the local capacity for community-based impact is improved. It is an investment in the individual’s impact over the long-term.
Build capacity through training. Provide ongoing learning, training and peer-to-peer exchange opportunities at formal and informal gatherings and summits. Incorporate team building and project development while facilitating ownership of the work. Training might include leadership development, community building, board development, evaluation, cultural competency, decision making, communications processes, community development, and policy advocacy. Offering trainings at different times (day, evening, weekends) and in distinct curricula segments accommodates participants with different schedules.
Pave the way for self-driven involvement. Establishment of decision-making protocols and managerial frameworks enable older adults to take control, develop ownership, and seek assistance from the organization as a resource when needed.
Create a consistent, effective communications stream. Participants want to feel connected to the issue, project, and organization. They want to be informed, appreciated, and know they are helping. Measure impact and communicate it; it’s an important part of engaging older adults, and keeping them engaged over the long-term.
Embrace technology, if needed, to ensure participation. Particularly in rural and statewide programs, technology may be needed to bring individuals together for training activities. Video-conferencing is effective but requires groundwork with libraries, higher education systems, and others who allow access to these technologies, as well as technical support to facilitate access to video conferencing, webinar software, and other technologies that might be unfamiliar to some.
Engage leaders who can work successfully with sensitivities that may be barriers to participation. Creative approaches may be needed to mitigate participants’ feelings of embarrassment, exposure, or shame (e.g., doing domestic violence work within a culture where it’s not customary to talk about personal topics, or normalizing the experience of illiteracy to diminish stigma).
Create avenues for channeling and sharing passion. Using older adults as mentors to their peers builds connections while also helping to transition projects from year to year.
Facilitate social, community-building, and networking opportunities. Participation is typically tied to an ongoing social life; not a sense of duty. Gatherings are important to communicate the work’s impact and enable connections between individuals with similar backgrounds, interests, and skills. This is especially important in rural areas and among communities that are isolated from the mainstream.
Bring together peers involved in diverse work. Provide sustained periods to connect and discuss community projects through formal and informal venues and sessions such as panels, meals, tours, activities, and other time spent together. Monthly workshops, regional meetings, and summits provide times for participants to meet, network, sustain learning, and increase peer connections.
Remember the importance of the human touch. The key to success in many change efforts led by older adults has been dedicated volunteer coordinators who build relationships with program participants. Involvement is personal for participants. Especially for fragile or marginalized populations, success is dependent on being able to get to know them and establishing trusting relationships.
Free guides and tools you may find useful include Practical Approaches for Mobilizing Older Adults as Community Changemakers and other publications about recruiting older adult participants; third-party resources to help community-based organizations recruit and manage volunteers; and more.Related Resources