Aiken, S.C., a town of 29,000 near the Georgia border, is ahead of the curve in adapting to older populations. Nearly 22 percent of its population is older than 65 -- demographically, Aiken represents what most cities and towns will look like in 2050.
What further distinguishes Aiken from other communities is its bevy of senior programs: The town has a Council on Aging that advises the mayor and City Council on senior issues, a service called Smart 911 to display pertinent information to 911 dispatchers when an elderly person calls, and the city is implementing Project Lifesaver, a service that provides people who have dementia with bracelets that continuously transmit their location via GPS technology.
Aiken also encourages seniors to stay busy and engaged. One of the ways it does this is through Foster Grandparents, a federally funded program for senior citizens 55 and older. The participants visit schools, Head Start centers, nonprofit daycares and after-school programs to help at-risk children, says Director Toni Brunson.
“Teachers will assign [senior citizens to] children who need extra help or just a little bit of extra attention one-on-one, and they’ll help that child with spelling, reading, math, things like that,” she says. “If they’re falling behind in class, that one-on-one attention helps get them back on track.” At Head Start centers, the volunteers are assigned to children who “sometimes just need a grandma,” Brunson says. “So they get one-on-one bonding time with a grandparent figure.”
Foster Grandparents, which also gets funds from the Corporation for National and Community Service and is sponsored in the region by the Aiken-Barnwell Community Action Commission, has been operating in Aiken since the mid-1980s.
The program has grown from about 20 volunteers in the region to 112. Senior citizens living on a limited income are eligible to receive a modest stipend. They earn 16 cents per mile driven between their homes and volunteer sites, and $2.65 per hour. They don’t do it for the money, Brunson says, but many find it to be a valuable source of extra income.The money earned by the elderly volunteers is defined as a stipend, so that it cannot be taxed or reported as income should they need to apply for food stamps or government-assisted housing. “Believe it or not, they actually come to depend on the stipend check they get,” which they receive every two weeks.
The key to Foster Grandparents is that it is as much about helping at-risk kids as senior citizens. “There are a lot of children in our community and everywhere who don’t really have a grandparent figure in their life, and they really come to know these volunteers -- they call them grandma and grandpa,” Brunson says. “It’s just a good thing -- it makes the grandma feel good, it makes the child feel good. It’s a win-win situation for the children and the senior citizens.”
In addition to the stipend, all seniors receive one meal on the day they volunteer, supplemental accident and liability insurance while on duty, and a free yearly physical with a physician. “That helps a senior who may not normally go to the doctor,” Brunson says. “They’ll go, we pay for it and it helps them stay healthy.”
The volunteers donate a minimum of 15 hours of their time a week, up to 40 hours per week. If the budget would allow it, Brunson says, they’d all likely work the maximum. “They enjoy working with the children. They feel like if they’re not at the school, that they’re needed there,” she says. “And the children do really miss them; so do the teachers they assist.”
Globally, the world’s population is aging in dramatic ways. For the first time in history, people age 65 and older will outnumber children under the age of 5. Studies have shown that societal aging affects economic growth and many other issues, including the sustainability of families, the ability of states and communities to provide resources for older citizens, and even international relations.
Because programs like Foster Grandparents benefit senior citizens and at-risk kids alike, they’ve been embraced by other communities in South Carolina and in other states, as well. For the seniors that participate, they feel useful, says Brunson, giving them something to do to get out of the house. “It gives them a reason to get up in the morning, and they feel like they’re making a difference in a child’s life.”