SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When some older adults stop working for pay, they begin to work for a cause. In a national survey, older adults said they volunteer to make a difference, to give back, to help their communities - in other words, to have a sense of purpose.
NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging. And this week, she's bringing us stories about how older Americans are navigating the new realities of work and retirement. Today, she brings us a woman who retired and found purpose in helping other seniors.
CARRIE EAGLES: Ms. Franklin (ph), how have you been?
MS FRANKLIN: Not so good.
EAGLES: Oh, no. What's the matter?
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Ms. Franklin is 87. She's at the Bradley Senior Center in South LA to get some free taxi vouchers. The woman taking care of the paperwork is 70-year-old volunteer Carrie Eagles. She's the kind of person who, if she's met you more than once, greets you with a hug.
EAGLES: OK, dear, I'm going to get you to sign both places. I filled out everything else, but I...
MS FRANKLIN: All right.
EAGLES: ...Cannot do that signature (laughter).
JAFFE: Eagles is here four mornings a week. In addition to free taxi vouchers and bus tokens, Eagles signs people up for food assistance and sometimes teaches health classes. Teaching was her career, both in public schools and community organizations.
EAGLES: First grade, third grade, all the different grades, and then adult education and preschool.
JAFFE: But it's always been the older folks in her classes and in her community who moved her.
EAGLES: The seniors, what recourse do they have? Some of them do not have families. Some have children that never visit them. So they're more, like, out on their own. And people are taking advantage of them.
JAFFE: She points out some of the ways seniors are vulnerable as she drives around the neighborhood, like the places where they can easily become crime victims - the boulevard lined with dilapidated campers that many seniors call home and supermarkets that are so far apart, it's hard for older people to even buy enough food.
EAGLES: Seniors probably cannot walk that distance. They have the little mom-and-pop stores in between, but they'll charge you a fortune.
JAFFE: Eagles says that even when the food is free, it can be hard on seniors. And to explain, she stops at a big building belonging to a well-known charity and recalls a food giveaway a few years back.
EAGLES: It was about a thousand people in line. And I just had to ask the director, I said, it's hot. And I said, some of these people are seniors. She said, well, if they want it, they'll wait. If not, go home. That was the turning point for me.
JAFFE: So she retired and became a senior center volunteer. Not every older person is lucky to have such a flash of insight, says Marc Freedman. He's the founder of encore.org, a nonprofit that helps retirees find work and volunteer opportunities with social impact.
MARC FREEDMAN: We spend a lot more time figuring out whether we're going to have enough money for this extended period of life that's opening up and much less about how we're going to make the most of this great gift of longevity.
JAFFE: There is increasing evidence that having a sense of purpose pays dividends for older adults. Studies suggest that they live longer and are more likely to recover from health setbacks while being less likely to suffer cognitive decline.
And volunteering has another kind of payoff. The work of older volunteers has an economic value of more than $73 billion annually. But Freedman says that's not what really motivates older adults.
FREEDMAN: The desire of so many tens of millions of older people to live a life that still matters, to have that reason to get up in the morning is actually a powerful fit with what we need as a society.
EAGLES: OK, sweetie, here you go again. Sign your name...
MS FRANKLIN: I did.
EAGLES: ...And then print your name.
JAFFE: Carrie Eagles has the purpose issue nailed. The financial piece of retirement, not as much. She's been widowed a long time. She says she has a modest pension from the time she taught in public schools and Social Security from her other teaching jobs.
EAGLES: I just kind of know how to, you know, manage.
JAFFE: Plus her two grown children help her out. And she gets a stipend for her work at the senior center even though she is considered a volunteer. That's enough to let her focus on her real mission - being an anchor for older folks who feel adrift.
EAGLES: To me, seniors are just out there, just feeling their way around, doing the best they can. It's not a good situation.
JAFFE: But she tries to make it a little better one taxi voucher, one bus token, one hug at a time. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
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