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Volunteers Provide Support for American Seniors with Few Social Ties

The elderly are typically counted among society’s most vulnerable members due to health and physical challenges that accompany aging. Unfortunately, seniors are even more vulnerable during the current crisis and constitute one of the CDC’s high-risk populations for COVID-19.

Support networks are critical for older Americans because these networks provide vital services including transportation to doctor’s appointments, grocery delivery, and emotional support. Unfortunately, the relationships that naturally provide this type of support have frayed over time, including among American seniors. This trend is detailed in our report An Invisible Tsunami: ‘Aging Alone’ and Its Effect on Older Americans, Families, and Tax Payers.

Data from the Health and Retirement Study show that over the last two decades, adults in their early sixties have become less likely to be married or cohabiting; less likely to live near a child, relative, or good friend; and less likely to be actively involved in a church. Older Americans also have fewer children on average than in the past.   

Figure 1. Social Support among Adults age 61-63, 1994-2014

Source: Figure borrowed from An Invisible Tsunami: ‘Aging Alone’ and Its Effect on Older Americans, Families, and Tax Payers.

Limited social interaction is beneficial when physical proximity increases risk of disease transmission, but having few social connections is undesirable: fewer social connections means fewer people that can provide support through a crisis.

Fortunately, Americans around the country are using their resources and creativity to help their elderly neighbors. A few examples of that ingenuity are provided below:

  • Restaurants in some cities are delivering free meals to seniors, and volunteers are providing time and money to support the cause.  
  • Several grocery stores around the U.S. have implemented senior shopping hours, a time dedicated to seniors and other immunocompromised individuals that allows them to have the stores to themselves before other shoppers arrive. 
  • Numerous volunteer grocery shopping and delivery groups are popping up across the nation to help seniors get the food and supplies they need without having to leave the house. These groups include Shopping Angels, , Zoomers to Boomers, and Invisible Hands, an organization which helps the elderly and other vulnerable populations obtain food and medication.
  • A senior center in Salt Lake County, Utah is providing a drive-up lunch service for seniors, as well as making phone calls to check in on seniors and connect them with resources.
  • The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee is enlisting volunteers to call senior citizens and provide them with up-to-date information about the pandemic.
  • Police officers in Iowa are volunteering their off-duty time to deliver groceries to the elderly as well, and firefighters in California are doing the same.
  • All Together in Los Angeles is connecting seniors with volunteers. The volunteers connect seniors with grocery or meal delivery services, provide delivery services themselves, or simply offer a phone call to provide emotional support.
  • Some non-profit organizations have donated iPads to residents in retirement and nursing homes so seniors can keep in touch with loved ones via technology.
  • The Salvation Army is coordinating volunteer efforts to make COVID-19 care packages for seniors and other vulnerable individuals. 

These examples demonstrate the capacity and willingness of Americans, often through civil society, to help the elderly in their communities and inspire others to do the same. Policymakers should support civil society’s efforts by reducing regulations that stand in its way of efforts to help and ensuring that government programs do not crowd out or replace local or community efforts. Policymakers should also reform the charitable tax deduction so that it treats all donors more fairly.

These reforms will be important for the long-term. Although some elderly needs may ease as the current crisis subsides, the efforts of civil society to support vulnerable populations will continue well past the pandemic.

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