Childhood and late adulthood are associated with vastly different but equally pressing needs that policymakers have been grappling with for decades. Children are vulnerable to abuse and neglect at the hands of others and older adults can easily become subject to the compounding issues of failing health and isolation. The Encore Boston Network, a coalition of organizations who aim to strengthen communities through engaging those past midlife in service, offers a unique solution to the problems faced by both at-risk populations: each other.
Although Massachusetts consistently ranks highly in overall child well-being according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 20 percent of Massachusetts children have endured at least 2 adverse experiences, including frequent economic hardship, parental death or incarceration, family or neighborhood violence, or living with someone who has a mental illness or substance abuse problem. Many of these situations require state intervention on behalf of the child, which can overload the system. The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) relies on trained volunteers to help conduct clerical work for the large number of cases they receive each year so social workers can focus more of their attention on the children and families in need.
Volunteering could potentially offer the cure for isolation among seniors and thus ameliorate one of the major threats to older adults’ well-being and good health. Multiple studies have found that isolation can cut years off of an individual’s life. According to the 2012 America’s Families and Living Arrangements report, one in five men older than 65 and more than one in three women older than 65 live alone. After leaving the workforce, it can become more difficult to regularly engage in social activities outside the home. Volunteering offers an opportunity for social engagement through purposeful interaction that can benefit the senior and their community at the same time.
Seniors offer a human capital solution for government programs that is not being fully utilized. The DCF had not actively recruited older adults in the past to fill the needs of their office and the Encore Boston Network recognized this as a missed opportunity. As an extension of their existing Generation to Generation campaign, which enlists older adults to volunteer at government agencies and nonprofits for the benefit of children and youth, the Encore Boston Network has formed a first of its kind partnership with DCF and the Executive Office of Elder Affairs.
Though still in its preliminary phases, the architects of the program have set clear goals. In the initial pilot, the program hopes to fill 25 volunteer positions with older adults in 4 DCF branches before expanding to the remaining 25 offices within Massachusetts. Although there are hurdles to overcome, such as recruiting seniors, securing transportation, and establishing best practices, Encore Boston Network and DCF hope their initiative will create a replicable model for partnerships between older volunteers and government agencies across the state.