The author Sophie Chen was a Summer Fellow at Civic Enterprises.
What do you think you would be doing at 106 years old? Waking up every day with the feeling that yesterday is repeating itself? For 106-year-old Washington, DC resident Virginia McLaurin, every day is meaningful and enjoyable. She gets up early every morning and heads to Sharpe Health School, where she has volunteered for 20 years, serving 40 hours a week. As a Senior Corps member, “Grandma Virginia” serves as a Foster Grandparent and mentors students in special needs. “I just love kids,” she says, “Sorking with them keeps me going. I volunteer because I like doing something that helps people.”1
We are all aging. By 2030, all of the baby boomers will have moved into the senior population. Between 2012 and 2050, the elder population (aged 65 and over) is projected to almost double – from about 40 million to 80 million.2 At the same time, life expectancy is projected to increase about 3 years at 65 years old for most U.S. population between 2012 and 2050.3 How should we add values to those extra years? There’s a great option: Encore Service – national service in the second stage of life.
I personally love the word “encore”. It comes from French, literally means “still, again”. Usually we use it to call for a repeated or additional performance at the end of a concert. Now we are calling for an encore in life: at the pivot point where we think about starting the second stage of life, we want it to be as brilliant as our first half of life – metaphorically, the concert isn’t over yet. “Encore Service” delivers such a message that in the second stage of life, we are still learning, working, and serving our communities – by which we stay strong and healthy.
“Encore Service” sounds like a recent concept, yet the origin of the idea can date back to several decades ago. For example, the Foster Grandparent program – which has just come to its 50th anniversary – actually began in 1965. At first, it was launched as a national demonstration effort; but now it has expanded to all 50 states. Volunteers in the program help children on literacy, provide one-on-one tutoring, mentor troubled teens and young mothers, and care for children with disabilities.4
Evaluation results show that both older volunteers and kids who are served benefit from these kind of programs. A research finds that foster grandparents reported statistically significant increase in life-satisfaction and self-esteem.5 As Grandma Virginia says, “The children keep me young and alive.”6 Evaluations of similar programs like Experience Corps also found that there was improvement in students’ reading skills.7
Despite these benefits, you may still want to ask why national service is highlighted while other options – e.g., going back to school or having a part-time job, – are also available. The answer lies in the fact that Encore Service addresses an important issue facing our society: national service and other civic engagement indicators are at a historically low level. Millions of Americans, including older Americans, stepped forward to do whatever they could to bring the country out of sorrow after the 9/11 tragedy – this civic spirit led to a rise of volunteerism from 2002 to 2005. Yet since 2006, percent of volunteers has seen a significant drop8 or a “steep decline” as the National Conference on Citizenship describes the civic health over the past few decades.9
To rebuild this broken citizenship, the timing is perfect to bring “Encore Service” on the nation’s agenda. Older Americans have not only volunteered more hours per year than other age groups10 – suggesting that they are more likely to engage in a continuous period of service – but also indicated their willingness to serve.11 Therefore, a growing national service force comprised of older Americans can be the pioneer of rebuilding the American civil society while solving some of the country’s most challenging problems.
So now it is time, no matter how old you are, to think about what you would like to do for your Encore Service. Just to share with you my plan for the future after retirement, I would like to be an afterschool tutor, teaching children about all the brilliant cultures in the world. What about you?
2 https://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p25-1140.pdf" target
5 Saltz, R. (1989). Research Evaluation of a Foster Grandparent Program. Journal of Children in Contemporary Society, 20(3-4), 205-216.
7 Morrow-Howell, N. et al. (2009). Evaluation of Experience Corps: Student Reading Outcomes. Center for Social Development, Washington University in St. Louis.
8 The table is created by the author. Data are retrieved from
10 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Volunteering in the United States”, February 25, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm.
11 Bridgeland, John M., Robert D. Putnam, and Harris L. Wofford. More to Give: Tapping the Talents of the Baby Boomer, Silent and Greatest Generations. 2008.