published Saturday, September 24th, 2011

Want to stay young? Seniors who volunteer live longer, healthier lives

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SENIOR VOLUNTEERS

• Foster Grandparent -- 12,000 seniors volunteer through this program in Tennessee, working with at-risk children in schools.

• RSVP -- RSVP volunteers worked through 700 organizations statewide last year to mentor children, assist victims of natural disasters, improve the environment and provide business and technical expertise to non-profits.

• Senior Companions -- In Tennessee, 530 older adults were provided with transportation and helped with groceries, paying bills, paper work and respite care.

Source: Senior Corps'


GET INVOLVED

If you are over 55 years old and want to get involved, check out the Senior Corps' website at www.seniorcorps.gov.

In Tennessee and Georgia, community volunteers 55 and older are donating more than $2.5 billion worth of time in after-school programs and social agencies, a report released this week by the federal government shows.

These seniors are filling a huge need for community involvement, officials said. And the work is keeping them young.

Twenty years of research show that seniors who spend their time volunteering delay death, have great functional abilities and lower rates of depression and disease later in life.

As these seniors "get older, their friends may have been passed away. Some are deserted by their family," said Billie Wright, field supervisor for the Foster Grandparent program in McMinn, Bradley and Hamilton counties. "They get recognition, and they get that social interaction. They love the hugs that they get from the children."

More than 358,800 seniors in Tennessee, or 23 percent, serve an average of 53.2 million hours each year, according to a report by the Corporation for National and Community Service

In Georgia, 446,100 adults aged 55 and up, or 22.5 percent of seniors, volunteer 66.8 million hours every year on average.

This week, state and federal agencies plan to honor these volunteers who do everything from tutoring at-risk students to responding to natural disasters.

Karlen Eaton, a 68-year-old former teacher who started working as a volunteer grandparent two years ago at a day care in downtown Chattanooga, said she is thrilled when she can influence a child who is struggling with temper tantrums or the alphabet.

"There is always someone in my lap who needs a little extra cuddling," said Eaton, who works with 2- and 3-year-olds. "It is just an awesome thing. I am the only grandparent that some of them know."

More than a hundred people are involved in the local Foster Grandparent program at 39 sites, and 12,000 participate statewide.

Seniors who qualify are given a small stipend of $2.65 an hour and are required to work 20 to 25 hours a week. Volunteers must be low income and get a doctor's approval each year that says they are well enough for physical activity.

Once in the school, they are paired with two special-needs children and work to help them improve motor skills, literacy and social interaction.

And the pairings often are successful.

Last year, 75 percent of assisted children locally made improvements in cognitive development, said Wright.

Sixty-five percent improved literacy skills and 73 percent improved social and emotional skills.

"You can't have too many people that love your child," Wright said. "They become almost like family."

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about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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