Seniors invest in social capital

Older adults still civically active, even post-pandemic

click to enlarge Seniors invest in social capital
Rev. Brooks Wilson, pastor of South Side Christian Church, says he has many church members who seek out community causes that mesh with their personal faith beliefs.

Sarah Phalen, president and CEO of INB, tells the story of her mom, Lora Murgatroyd, who felt she could improve the upkeep of the flowers and bushes in her home community of Sherman.

"She started daily watering and weeding because she saw the need," says Phalen. "She eventually spearheaded a new group called Making Our Village Exceptional (MOVE), and she recruits people to help her. Even though there is a large number of volunteers now, she still loads up her car each day in the summer with water jugs and makes my dad go with her to water these public spaces."

It turns out Murgatroyd is one of a countless number of older adults who find the time to make a difference by volunteering. Data on civic participation trends in post-pandemic times is not readily available, but an informal survey of area leaders finds them mostly optimistic about seniors' civic involvement, with a few caveats.

"Generally, I have found a great willingness from a number of older adults to engage in local activities," says Pastor Brooks Wilson of South Side Christian Church. "Many times it is interest-based, and their passion for this project or that cause helps motivate them to invest. In our context, much of what I see are individuals stepping into community causes that mesh with their personal faith beliefs."

Austin Randolph, president of Springfield Frontiers International, which helps local youth with leadership development and scholarships, hosts the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. breakfast. He believes older people understand community needs and organizations' lack of resources, and so they step up.

"You know the saying, 'It takes a village to raise a child,'" Randolph says. "I say that it takes older people to be civically involved to raise a community."

At the United Way of Central Illinois, executive director Marne Fauser says they depend on volunteers, "and we do see a willingness of older adults to engage with us and other nonprofit organizations in the community."

In 2021, the United Way launched ReUnited, a program to help retirees fill time and stay connected to the community. The ReUnited group offers regularly planned volunteer opportunities, educational programming, social events and philanthropic opportunities.

click to enlarge Seniors invest in social capital
Austin Randolph, president of Springfield Frontiers International, says it takes older people being civically involved to raise up the community.

Area leaders say that people typically link their own personal interests or passions with their volunteer activity. South Side Christian Church, for example, has an ongoing relationship with nearby Black Hawk Elementary School. Wilson said, "I know a man and his wife who began mentoring a child at Black Hawk years ago. The man would simply come and eat lunch with this boy once a week at school. But with time, the relationship with the child and his family grew more and more. They celebrate holidays together, go on fun trips together and eat together."

Multiply that kind of activity in many other parts of the community and what you get is a rising supply of social capital, which is the combination of networks, norms and trust that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit in a community. Experts say the more the social capital, the stronger a community is.

"I believe that in 2023 there are more people who are more comfortable with volunteering and being in groups or out in public," Fauser said of post-pandemic trends. "So seeing signs of more older adults volunteering is great for our local community."

Phalen describes people she knows who "choose things they really are passionate about. Several of my friends are dog lovers and volunteer at the Animal Protective League weekly, take foster dogs and advocate for the organization. They don't want a board seat or a formal position; they just want to help dogs. I know others who are passionate about their church and spend time volunteering there."

A concern some local leaders expressed is whether older adults might face too many family obligations to remain as civically active as they otherwise might be. Many grandparents, for example, watch their grandkids several days a week, Phalen says, and many older working adults are "managing their parents' doctor appointments, moving their parents to smaller places or assisted care and managing their parents' finances," all of which is time-consuming.

Pastor Wilson has observed other barriers to involvement, such as empty nesters who want to travel. He says he knows of older adults "who seek to fulfill their bucket-list aspirations" and many who travel frequently to visit family and friends in other states.

Meanwhile, Phalen explained that she found inspiration not only from her mom, but from her dad, Tom Murgatroyd of Sherman. After retiring from the military and allocating time to his grandchildren and aging parents, he became a tour guide at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, which has evolved into camaraderie that includes lunches and golf with other volunteers.

That's the kind of social capital that benefits communities, and the civic engagement of older adults contributes to their own enjoyment of life.

Ed Wojcicki completed his master's thesis on social capital and civic engagement and has been a freelance writer since 1979. He is finding ways to stay involved in the community following his own retirement.

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