For Jewish older adults, the lure of volunteerism may be especially strong, as the concept of tikkun olam, and giving back, is central to the Jewish value system.
“Unretirement” — that’s the latest buzzword to describe a trend among older adults, particularly baby boomers, who reject conventional notions of retirement.
Maybe they start a second career. Maybe they join the Peace Corps. Maybe they devote themselves to learning new skills or transforming their communities. For Jewish older adults, the lure of volunteerism may be especially strong, as the concept of tikkun olam, and giving back, is central to the Jewish value system.
Wyndmoor resident Glenna Shire, 68, has been retired for five years but finds she can’t help getting involved in projects if it’s something she feels strongly about.
A teacher for the deaf for 30 years, Shire recently had the opportunity to share her knowledge about deaf culture with a group of West Philadelphia girls, ages 9 to 14. The girls are in a Salvation Army program called Be Your Best, which provides lessons on everything from setting a table to mastering a strong handshake.
It’s an eclectic curriculum, thanks to program leader Collette McBratney, who brought Shire into the class after meeting her at a hair salon and hearing about her career.
“Those young ladies in West Philadelphia need to understand differences and not be afraid,” said McBratney, 67, who also works fulltime for Independence Blue Cross. “With Glenna, there’s a lot of animation and energy because she’s a straight shooter. There’s authenticity along with her expertise.”
Shire talked to the girls about what deaf people are like, and busted the myths that persist about deaf culture. She also taught them some American Sign Language (ASL).
“My particular thrust was to show that there are differences [between people] but that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” Shire said. “It can be a valuable thing.”
By explaining the various ways that deaf people process information, she said, “it shows there are all different kinds of listening. Not every deaf person signs. I showed them how difficult it can be to lip read, how tiring it can be. We talked about the accommodations that deaf people have to have to level the playing the field. They got to see that everyone does things in a different way, but it doesn’t have to be weird or bad. Respect was an important value.”
The girls tried some sign language for themselves and seemed to enjoy it.
“ASL is done on the hands, and it’s a very expressive language,” Shire said. “It’s a nice way to show you can express your feelings in a different manner, rather than lashing out.”
McBratney believed Spire’s visit made a big difference.
“I think what they thought a deaf person was like changed — they appreciated that a deaf person wants to dance, too,” she said. “[Now, after Glenna’s visit], they wouldn’t let fear prevent them from making a friend.”
McBratney also thought that Shire’s age was an advantage, prompting the girls to think about their own future plans.
“Here’s Glenna — was she always a doctor? How did she do it? I think [it’s good] seeing a person who has come through a career but also balanced that with children or grandchildren and has retired to do something good.”
Older adults, McBratney said, suggest to kids that “there’s a citizenship — there’s a giving back to other people.”
Major Philip Ferreira, director of operations for the Salvation Army of Philadelphia, agrees.
“We consider volunteers very valuable to us. Older people bring a lot to the table,” he said. “Senior volunteers — regardless of socioeconomic background — offer experience, knowledge and come with a different level of understanding. They have work experience, family experience, which helps with relationships.”
He also said they have a good eye for things that need to get done.
While many older volunteers become docents, give lectures, provide companionship and the like, others prefer to be more physically active.
That’s certainly true of the many older volunteers for the vast 1,800-acre Wissahickon Valley Park. There is nothing they don’t do, including much of the rigorous physical labor that’s required to maintain the park’s trails and structures. They pick up trash on cleanup days, lead hikes, organize projects and interface with government employees.
They are, said Friends of the Wissahickon’s volunteer coordinator John Holback, tremendous assets.
Though the young Holback gets some gentle ribbing from senior volunteers about his age — “you were born when?” — he’s got a terrific rapport with them, and a great deal of respect for what they contribute.
“There are older guys [among our volunteers] who have three times my life’s worth of experience,” said Holback, noting their deep knowledge of the park and its history.
“You say, ‘You know, some of the shingles on the Mount Airy shed are falling apart. Can you do that?’ And they’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, we did that back in ’92. We’re happy to do it again, no problem.’ They get it. And that’s passing knowledge onto me, and I can pass it along. That’s another benefit [of older volunteers] — passing along their experiences and information.”
Holback said older adults are also good role models for younger people.
“The cool thing about older people coming out is you get a diversity of backgrounds,” he said. “And it’s inspiring to see someone who has fake heart valves or whatever out there working.”
Next up for Shire is an effort to get a Rock Steady boxing program for people with Parkinson’s going in the suburbs. She donated some time to a similar program in Florida recently, and was moved by what she saw.
“I shed a number of tears,” she said, but she remains undeterred. “That’s what the volunteering means to me: If you work hard and try to find your inner core, that’s how you can be the best you can be.”
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