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Retirees are a valuable volunteer resource

MY VIEW • Baby boomers have the opportunity to reinvent the retirement years

Ah, the 'golden years.' For our parents and theirs, this meant grown children living nearby, surrounding them with energetic grandkids to spoil. Later life represented a period of leisure, time to kick back, relax and take care of oneself.

But retirement also has historically been a time when older adults have struggled to find a sense of purpose, useful activities and meaning in their lives. Retirees are often concerned about having to depend on others, becoming a burden to their family and being isolated or alone.

Retirement is looming for 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964. I myself will be retiring in a few years. But times have changed; it's not our parents' golden years retirement anymore.

Our families often don't live in the same community. We lead more active and vigorous lives. Americans are living longer than ever as a result of medical science Ñ and living healthier lives. Life expectancy in 1900 was 47, but today that figure is 76.

Not surprisingly, research suggests that older adults remain more mentally and physically fit when they participate in the community. Despite that, community involvement plummets after retirement. If baby boomers change that, they can redefine retirement.

With the pressing needs of our society Ñ and our parents' experiences Ñ we have an obligation to look beyond our own world to consider how we will contribute to our community, in ways that are essential and provide genuine fulfillment.

Mature adults are a vastly untapped pool of talent who should be an important social asset. As baby boomers move toward retirement, they have the ability to be a tremendous, valuable volunteer resource across our nation. As a windfall, that would create a new role for older adults, contributing to their own well being in the process.

Who better to provide critically needed skilled volunteer hours that would have a real impact on our communities? Our population of older adults has the time (something the rest of us desperately lack), talent, skills and, above all, experience in life and in the world.

A national policy initiative Ñ a massive call to action targeting the vast population of older adults Ñ would enable them to transition into new roles that would rejuvenate communities, revitalize society and motivate generations to come.

Funding from a national source, such as the Department of Aging, would make a significant difference. Looking at the big picture, it's difficult to find anyone who has stood more strongly for seniors than Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and his leadership on this initiative would be critical Ñ and beneficial.

Community colleges and nonprofits must take the next step by championing such an initiative. These organizations need to look for ways to reshape society by tapping into older adults, identifying and directing this growing national resource, and developing infrastructures to sustain and benefit a new type of aging.

Agencies should be more creative in recruiting volunteers and must do a better job of matching skills, interests and schedules to meet the growing needs of the programs in our communities. Currently, we are wasting opportunities, lives and skills. It's time to mobilize this vast source of ideas, energy and talent and direct our pool of aging Americans who represent 29 percent of the U.S. population.

Foster Grandparent, a program of Metropolitan Family Services, provides older adults with volunteer opportunities in schools and hospitals. 'Grandma Cleo' Shaw (almost no one knows her surname), a volunteer for Foster Grandparent, has mentored more than 2,000 children over the last 19 years.

Kelso Elementary School in Boring, where 81-year-old Grandma Cleo volunteers, named its library in her honor. It isn't the honors she receives that provide the motivation to spend time with students. Her motto is, 'Why sit at home and be bored when there is so much to do?'

Consider the possibilities. Imagine being a part of a national effort to engage the older population in rewarding and compelling volunteer experiences with children, families, people with disabilities and older adults. The benefit to society would be infinite and self-sustaining.

There are five times as many older adults in America as there were in the mid-1930s. Baby boomers have an opportunity and a responsibility Ñ now and in retirement Ñ to help create a more caring and civilized society. A national initiative Ñ combined with local and national organizations Ñ would play a critical role engaging this untapped national cornucopia.

Every eight seconds a baby boomer turns 50. Now is the time for us to reinvent retirement.

Judy Kling is the advisory council chairwoman for the older adult volunteer programs offered by Metropolitan Family Service. She lives in Oregon City.