The Problem Encouraging volunteerism among Illinois’s senior citizens is a worthy goal, with many benefits for both individual volunteers and those they serve.
Illinois’s Foster Grandparents Program, housed in the Illinois Department of Aging, is meant to connect “volunteers” with “opportunities for seniors to work with children with exceptional needs.” However, the program’s structure leads to questions about the scope of individuals eligible to participate as well as its volunteer-centric nature.
Additionally, the Department of Aging’s website is currently referring would-be participants to a dubious external website that is more focused on selling “Medigap” insurance policies for Medicare enrollees than providing volunteer opportunity information. This is confusing for seniors who want to help out in their communities.
The Foster Grandparent Program began in 1965 as a “pilot program designed to engage people over 60 with some income limitations in community service.” According to a promotional brochure, program participants volunteer in schools, hospitals, drug treatment centers, correctional institutions, day care centers, and Head Start programs. The State of Illinois allocates money to match federal funds received for the program. Over the past five fiscal years state funding has remained relatively constant, with a reduction in fiscal year 2010.
The Foster Grandparents Program works with partner sites in eleven Illinois communities, but enrollment is not open to all senior citizens. In order to qualify, foster grandparents must “meet certain income eligibility requirements,” or 200 percent of poverty guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services for those enrolled after October 1, 2009. For a one-person household, the income limit is $21,666. Seniors who do not meet income eligibility requirements for the Foster Grandparents Program could be deterred from volunteering.
Those who can and do enroll receive “a small, tax-free stipend to cover the cost of serving” as well as transportation assistance and other benefits. Program participants receive a tax-free income of $2.65 an hour, and commit to 20 hours of work a week. This raises questions about the nature of the program. Traditionally, “volunteer” refers to a person who performs service without pay.
Over the past five years, the number of foster grandparents has fluctuated from a high of 961 in 2006, to a low of 742 in 2009. The number of volunteer hours has gone down by seven percent between fiscal years 2005 and 2010. It’s unclear how budget reductions could impact future service levels.
The Illinois Department of Aging’s website landing page for the Foster Grandparents Program provides two options for getting involved: calling the Senior HelpLine (800-252-8966) or clicking on a link to visit the SeniorCorps website. According to its official website, SeniorCorps “connects today’s over 55s with the people and organizations that need them most.”
However, the Department of Aging is directing would-be participants to what appears to be a sham SeniorCorps website (www.SeniorCorps.org) that focuses on pushing Medigap insurance plans to Medicare enrollees instead of the official SeniorCorps website (www.SeniorCorps.gov). The Department of Aging’s link to a list of Illinois-specific volunteering opportunities goes to a defunct page on SeniorCorps.org.
The Department does offer a “not responsible for contents of any off-site pages referenced” disclaimer when the SeniorCorp link is clicked. However, users have a reasonable expectation that they’re being directed to a legitimate website, especially since an Institute Policy Institute call to the Department’s Senior HelpLine for more information on the program resulted in directions to visit the SeniorCorps.org link on the Department of Aging’s website.
Our Solution The Department of Aging should immediately fix the SeniorCorp website link so users are no longer directed to a deceptive site. Further, it should provide detailed volunteer opportunities and partner organization contact information on its own website’s program landing page.
Moving forward, Illinoisans should consider how to encourage volunteer opportunities for all senior citizens outside of government programs, especially since ongoing state funding is uncertain during troubled budgetary times.
Why This Works Illinois’s communities are strengthened by volunteer efforts from and on behalf of the young and old alike. Many of the Department of Aging’s programs can be organized and promoted via civil society. Volunteer referral efforts like the Illinois Foster Grandparents Program should be reexamined for how they can operate without public funding. Promotion of such opportunities need not be government-centric to be successful.