How the "oldest old" experience and participate in volunteering across the lifespan

by Adam Felts

This post was authored by Thomas Smythe, a visiting Master's student at the AgeLab.

As a Master’s student from Boston College’s School of Social Work, I joined the AgeLab this past fall to further my experience in working with older adults. Since then, my work with our 85+ Lifestyle Leaders Panel has brought me close to a group of wonderful older adults who have stayed eager to learn and engage in community after turning 85. In January, I did a presentation for the group on volunteerism and afterwards we held small focus groups for the Lifestyle Leaders to share their perspectives and experiences on volunteering. The discussions showed that these experiences are often deeply personal for our Lifestyle Leaders and, for some, are part of their identity.

In the wake of the January workshop, I’ve scheduled interviews with Lifestyle Leaders who feel volunteerism has been a particularly important part of their lives. I’m interested to find out what has motivated them to volunteer throughout their lives, and their reflections on how volunteering has changed as they age. So far I’ve done a few fantastic interviews. Here I’d like to highlight one of our participants, Gloria Jefferson.

Gloria is a 92-year-old Black woman who has lived in Mattapan for over 40 years. Gloria raised 5 children there, all of whom were part of Boston’s METCO program. METCO (Metropolitan Council For Educational Opportunity) is a school desegregation program established in 1966 that sends students from Boston city school districts out to schools in surrounding suburban areas. At one point, Gloria had children going to school in Brookline, Natick, and Reading, but that didn’t stop her from joining the Parent Teacher Association for each school.

Gloria’s commitment to her children was, and still is, a labor of love. Her kids were involved in a variety of school groups, and she recalls being an avid fundraiser for those programs. Gloria rarely missed a play, performance, or concert, and was always at the heart of organizing. She wanted her children to succeed and have rich lives at school, but she also wanted to make those schools a better place for all of the METCO students, not just her own.

While the school years of her children have passed, her work as a volunteer has continued, staying closely aligned with her motherly instinct. Gloria currently serves as the ‘Associate Mother’ on the Mothers Board at her church (the lead Mother being a 104-year-old friend of hers – wow!) where she is responsible for supporting mothers in the congregation. The Mothers Board provides guidance for those raising a family, donates supplies, and meets with the mothers and children on Sundays to hear how things are going.

When looking at these examples of volunteerism, I see someone whose primary motivation is to ‘give back,’ a simple notion often connected to volunteering. But is there more to it? Gloria expressed that as a woman, and as a full-time nurse in her working years, providing care and support for other people has been what was always expected of her. Whether or not that is true, it hasn’t all been giving without receiving for her. Gloria believes her engagement in her community has contributed to her being able to live independently in her home as she ages. And she considers herself lucky to be able to provide for a community that she feels has always provided for her.

I’m looking forward to learning what volunteerism means to other members of the Lifestyle Leaders. Is it always about ‘giving back,’ or are volunteers motivated by what they gain themselves from their community activities? Do motivations change over the life course? Do the social roles older adults fill affect the ways they may choose to volunteer? The more I hear about different older adults' thoughts on volunteerism, the more questions I have. In the meantime, I think I’m going to try and be a little bit more like Gloria.

Thom Smythe is currently a Master’s in Social Work student at Boston College. Since receiving his Bachelor’s in Arts at Warren Wilson College, he has worked to address social isolation and loneliness in older adult communities in western North Carolina. At the AgeLab, he is researching volunteerism within the 85+ Lifestyle Leaders panel.

  • Share
  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Get Involved

Interested in this area of study? See how you can participate in AgeLab research or become a volunteer.


About the Author

Photo of Adam Felts
Adam Felts

Adam Felts is a researcher and writer at the MIT AgeLab. Currently he is involved in research on the experiences of family caregivers and the future of financial advice. He also manages the AgeLab blog and newsletter. He received his Master's in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2014 and his Master's of Theological Studies from Boston University in 2019.

More From the Blog

2020 OMEGA Summit Brings Together Students, Aging Professionals, Past Scholarship Winners

October 30, 2020

2020 Summer Interns Work on OMEGA, Lifestyle Leaders, C3 Project

August 26, 2020

2021 Spring Speaker Series Begins with Presentation from Dr. Catherine García on Social Determinants of Health

March 23, 2021