Mary Bleiberg: We Serve Because We Should

On May 19, 2011, the West Side Inter-Agency Council for the Aging (WSIACA) held their Annual Beatrice M. Goldberg Memorial Lecture at Jewish Home Lifecare.

The event honored Lilian Sicular’s contributions as a member of the board of the West Side Inter-Agency Council for the Aging, and our executive director Mary Bleiberg was invited to deliver the keynote speech.

Here is an edited version of Mary Bleiberg’s remarks.

We Serve because We Should

By Mary Bleiberg

Older people should serve their communities. Not just because it makes them feel good and keeps their minds active, but also because it’s the right thing to do.

Without the opportunity to serve someone, somewhere, we lose our moral standing in the community. We should view service as a moral imperative not just as a therapeutic treatment for individuals or a strategy for community building.

In earlier eras, service was integral to community and covered the whole life span. You spent most of your life providing for your family, if you lived long enough, you took care of their grandchildren or you served as an arbiter settling disputes, or transmitting traditions.  The concept of the village elder is familiar to all of us.

By viewing service through the lens of morality—that is by making it a “should” not just a could—we create a far more compelling argument for engaging older adults in service, as well asan many more opportunities.

Rather than volunteering because it makes us feel better, we feel better because we are doing the right thing. We are fulfilling our ethical responsibility.

What that “thing” is—reading to children, working the phone banks at a fund raiser, helping out at the church bake sale, using our professional experience to help launch a struggling nonprofit and yes—stuffing envelopes, are all valuable services – because they are needed by the community.

ReServe was created to provide meaningful opportunities for older adults to serve and to help transform incoming generations of older Americans into a powerful resource for social change, economic and cultural growth.

ReServe’s operating model and the opportunities we provide older adults and nonprofits are a function of historical circumstances.

First, Americans coming of retirement age are fundamentally different from earlier generations in terms of their health and social status, educational achievement, work experience and life expectations.

Second, a significant number of older adults need—and do not have—reasonable  alternatives to traditional retirement, opportunities to grow professionally, personally and socially, especially through work that promotes social justice and benefits.

Finally, nonprofits and public agencies are losing capacity to protect and serve those in need, even as demand for services grow.

ReServing works because it responds to the practical needs and interests of older adults and the nonprofit sector. It works also because it assumes that older people can and should use their skills and experience to help others community. And toward that end they can and should learn new skills.

Restoring the “should” in the lives of older people is the key to their fulfillment and to the future of American society. Everyone has a moral obligation to serve, in some fashion—at any age. We need to activate that moral impulse in older adults, and make them feel compelled to serve, to add value to their community because they should.

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