5 reasons why volunteers are important to aging and disability services

We’ve all seen the demographic charts that show the number of older adults increasing while the number of caregivers remains stagnant, associated with the rising need for assistance and care. These statistics highlight the importance of supporting and enhancing caregiving in a multitude of ways. Volunteers already play a critical role in providing assistance to older adults, people with disabilities and family caregivers, and the need for volunteers is only expected to grow as our society gets older with less family support. There are many reasons why engaging volunteers is so important to the programs they serve, to the volunteers themselves, and to the future of our support system. We highlight just a few here.  

The economic value of volunteers is tremendous

The leading public programs for older adults in the United States are delivered through the Older Americans Act (OAA) Title III funding, which provide services like nutrition, health and wellness, legal assistance, family caregiver support, transportation, and much more. In a study conducted by the Administration for Community Living in 2019, volunteers in these federal programs contributed over sixty-two million hours to deliver services for older adults. This is equal to approximately $1.7 billion. This does not even include volunteerism provided under non-OAA programs.  

Public safety net programs would not be possible without volunteers 

 In the same 2019 study, the Administration for Community Living found that volunteers provided over half of the total annual labor for OAA Title III services. Without volunteers, many providers of essential services would not be able to operate their programs or effectively reach individuals in the community. Volunteers allow programs to offer extensive services, activities, and other opportunities to older adults regardless of ability to pay, where it would be impossible if the equivalent number of staff had to be hired. 

There are mutual benefits to older adults and the volunteers 

The benefits of volunteering in general have been well-documented, and when combined with the aims of volunteer programs, they can provide compelling reasons to engage both older and younger volunteers in the act of service delivery. AmeriCorps Seniors programs, for example, engage older adults as volunteers in their community, often serving to support other older adults through acts like senior companionship, friendly calling, or meal delivery. They have found that volunteers experience decreased anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Other studies support the benefits to older adults in improved wellbeing through acts of volunteerism. 

There are unique benefits to younger people, too, for volunteering to support older adults. In a survey conducted by Mon Ami, younger people who provided friendly visiting services to older adults reported gaining new relationships, community, and wisdom. 

Volunteers fill (some) gaps left by workforce shortages 

Across home care and assisted living, there is a crisis-level workforce shortage, which has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. In New York alone, the state is projected to have nearly a million home care job openings between 2021 and 2040, where currently about 20 percent of positions are going unfilled. Volunteering is no replacement for some of the much-needed changes, including higher wages most importantly, that will be necessary to reduce turnover and attract more workers. However, with the changing demographics and the continued pressure from workforce challenges, there is an important role for volunteers to play in taking on some of the work that doesn’t require a paid, highly skilled worker. Volunteers are ideal candidates, for example, to provide social companionship or peer support or non-medical supports like chores and errands. In fact, a flexible workforce of volunteers may be even better suited for some activities, like social companionship where having a diverse pool of volunteers helps with matching across language and other preferences and where ‘being a friend’ is a choice and not a job. 

Volunteering can inspire people to pursue aging services careers 

 As a follow-on to reason number four, volunteering can help inspire people to pursue careers in aging services. Addressing workforce shortages of the future means taking action now to encourage younger people or people at the start of their careers to consider jobs in the ‘care’ sector. It’s a tactic seen regularly in education or healthcare. For example, hospital volunteering programs for high school or college students provide early exposure that gives insight into the responsibilities of healthcare professionals and the enormous roles that such individuals play in the lives of patients.  

While volunteerism’s contribution to aging services is vital, volunteer management is often overlooked and under-invested in. Volunteer programs do not operate themselves and in fact require a commitment of resources and investment to be run well. OAA-funded programs and others have always used volunteers in unique and innovative ways, and we must continue to invest in efforts to support volunteers and the programs that leverage volunteers. 

Check out some of Mon Ami’s resources for volunteer programs: