Photo by Frank Gallagher

As the coronavirus spreads across the U.S., many nonprofits — and many of the older adults who work with them as volunteers, Encore Fellows™ and staff — are grappling with the implications for their work. 

The CDC and World Health Organization have told us that “social distancing” – keeping a distance greater than 6 feet between people showing no signs of the virus – is a minimum measure to limit its spread. Following their advice is critical for individual protection and for the health of all of us.

While social distancing is one of the best actions that we can take right now to curb the spread of COVID-19, it can thwart some of the strongest reasons why older adults work in nonprofits or volunteer in schools and youth programs in the first place. We seek connections to younger workers, children and youth to make our lives richer and more joyful. But more important, we seek the purpose and meaning that comes from knowing we are using our experience to create a better future for all generations. 

Of course, distancing ourselves – from our co-workers or from the children and youth we serve – can be detrimental to our well-being. We might feel alone and disempowered, relegated to a world in which older adults are involuntarily separated from younger generations. In some cases,  disconnection can lead to social isolation, a condition that is directly correlated to physical and mental decline. 

How do we square this circle – protecting our health and the health of our colleagues and friends, while still contributing to the greater good and the success and sustainability of the nonprofit organizations where we work?

There are no easy answers, but here are a few suggestions.

  • Stay away from crowded offices and use alternatives to in-person work. That’s what the CDC and WHO advise for the public in general, but especially for people over 60, who are most at risk. Continue to check the CDC and WHO guidelines, which are updated continually; they are critical to insure everyone’s safety and well-being. 
  • Protect your own mental and physical health. Get outside and enjoy exercise in nature. While not a solution, it can really help.
  • Use this challenge to help build the kind of team and community we so strongly need in our country and that we all wish to foster. Promote positive and innovative ways to turn this temporary isolation into greater social bonding now and in the future. 
    • Enhance communication by phone, web and video conferencing with co-workers in this time of stress. Express our feelings to our co-workers and colleagues, including our sadness at being separated from them.
    • Use phone, web and video conferencing to stay connected to younger people we are working with.
    • Find new and virtual ways to use our skills and experience to keep contributing to the nonprofits, schools and other settings where we’ve been making a difference.
  • COVID-19 is also having a severe impact on the global and U.S. economy, and accelerating insecurity in the nonprofit sector. Encore Fellows™, older workers and volunteers have experienced the 1987 and the 2008 crashes and all the anxieties that arose then. Sharing experiences of these major societal change events is something we can offer to our younger colleagues, who are likely in these unchartered waters for the first time. 
  • Even as we get comfortable with remote work arrangements, when the coronavirus abates, we need to push ourselves to revive personal connections. In-person meetings and first-hand interactions are crucial for all generations in building empathy and maintaining emotional and physical health.

We all hope that social isolation and refraining from work is just a temporary measure. How temporary we don’t know but hopefully just long enough to come up with novel ways to interact and an increased motivation to get together when we are allowed. As soon as it’s safe again, the nonprofit organizations, where we have contributed so much of our experience, talent and time, want us back.

Let us know how you’re dealing with COVID-19 and how it’s affecting the work you’re doing to bridge generational divides and create a brighter future for all generations. Send your notes to [email protected]


RESOURCES

Activations/community engagement ideas: 

Advice for organizations: 

Advice for older adults:

Follow Encore.org on social media for more recommendations:

 

Gerry Bourne, MD, is director of the Encore Physicians Program, and Jim Emerman is a vice president at Encore.org and national director, Encore Fellows™.

Published March 16, 2020.

 

 

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