The Importance and Contribution of Volunteers in the National Aging Services Network

During this month’s National Volunteer Month, we recognize the important contributions of volunteers by providing key highlights from a study, funded by the Administration for Community Living (ACL) and conducted by New Editions Consulting, that assessed the role and economic value of volunteers in home- and community-based and long-term care programs for older adults.

Most older adults prefer to stay in their own homes as they get older, rather than live in institutional settings (Khalani-Cox, 2017). The ability to do so contributes to the adult’s well-being and helps mitigate financial burdens to society that are associated with providing care for individuals living in institutional settings. However, some older adults will require access to family caregivers and home- and community-based and long-term services and supports to enable them to continue to live independently in their own homes (Finlay et al., 2021). For example, an older adult may need assistance with completing chores, preparing meals, getting transportation to medical appointments, or obtaining Medicare coverage. Thanks to federal initiatives, such as the Older Americans Act (OAA) and the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP), which are administered by ACL, older adults can access essential services to help them remain independent and maintain their health and well-being (Bangerter et al., 2019; Parikh et al., 2015). These programs provide the following services:

  • OAA Title III: provides funding for senior centers and supportive services, including transportation, help with household tasks and personal care, and adult day care; nutrition services, including home-delivered and congregate meals; evidence-based prevention and health promotion services; and counseling, support groups, and relief from caregiver duties for caregivers.
  • OAA Title VII Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program (LTCOP): helps ensure the safety and protection of the rights of older adults by investigating and resolving complaints made by or on behalf of residents in long-term care facilities.
  • SHIP: assists Medicare-eligible individuals in obtaining Medicare coverage and helps beneficiaries with limited income to apply for reduced out-of-pocket payments for healthcare services.

Services and supports funded through these programs are delivered through a national aging services network consisting of state and county agencies (i.e., area agencies on aging [AAA]) (ACL, 2021). Importantly, these programs also rely heavily on the contribution of volunteers— individuals who donate their time to perform activities through an organization outside their own household. In fact, without volunteers, the network would not be able to reach as many older adults in the community or provide nearly as many services as it currently does.

While it is generally known that a large percent of individuals who provide services through these programs are volunteers, these is not much information available about the actual size of the volunteer workforce and their economic contribution to these programs. The Volunteerism study tried to answer these questions using publicly available data for OAA and SHIP reported by state and territory grantees to ACL. Based on 2019 program data, the study found:

  • For OAA Title III programs, there were 24,642 AAA volunteers and 31,234 AAA paid staff, with volunteers contributing approximately 62,467,200 hours in 2019. Volunteers contributed about 56% of the total annual labor in 2019 for OAA Title III, for an estimated annual value of $1.7 billion.
  • For the OAA Title VII LTCOP, there were 5,947 volunteers and 11,118 paid staff, with volunteers contributing approximately 514,095 hours in 2019. Volunteers for the LTCOP contributed about 16% of the annual labor in that year, or roughly $14 million in total estimated annual value.
  • For SHIP, there were 6,404 volunteers and 7,149 paid staff, with volunteers contributing approximately 1,027,358 hours in 2019. SHIP volunteers contributed about 28.2% of the total annual labor, or roughly $28 million in total estimated annual value.

The results from the study further emphasize the contributions volunteers make to provide services and supports that are critical for older adults. At the same time, aging services providers may come to rely even more heavily on volunteers in the future. With the number of older adults increasing, we can anticipate a substantial increase in the demand for the services and supports. At the same time, we know that the supply of services and supports for older adults is likely to decrease relative to funding levels, as funding has not kept pace with the increase in the aging population. Thus, it’s important for programs to ensure that they keep current volunteers committed and work to  determine effective strategies for recruiting new volunteers and keeping them engaged.

For more details, please see the final study report, a report documenting examples of effective volunteer practicesstories from volunteers that highlight their value  to ACL programming, and a short infographic highlighting key findings.

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