These people pursue different activities and have divergent motivations. But they have one thing in common: They are part of a growing movement of people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond who are working to create a sustainable society and to conserve our natural resources. I learned in the interviews for my book 30 Lessons for Living how deeply many elders (regardless of their political views) care about preserving the environment for future generations.
This new movement offers a rare opportunity to solve two problems at the same time. On the one hand, communities have an enormous need for environmental volunteers. Their engagement is needed in everything from keeping natural areas clean, to testing water quality, to promoting recycling, to providing educational programs for children.
But older people don't just benefit the environment in these activities. In fact volunteering in environmental activities can have huge benefits for the volunteers. Here are some reasons why (story continues below slide show):
Retirees who volunteered on environmental projects in the outdoors showed more dramatic health benefits than people engaged in other types of service, according to a <a href="http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/April10/EnviroVolunteers.html" target="_hplink">2010 Cornell study</a> of a group of 7,000 Californians surveyed over a 20-year period. Better health outcomes were connected to a higher level of physical activity and increased exposure to nature. <em>Flickr photo by</em>: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/prospectpark/5114800158/" target="_hplink"><em>Prospect Park</em></a>.
Pursuing a green passion and developing new skills can increase self-esteem and confidence. The <a href="http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/April10/EnviroVolunteers.html" target="_hplink">Cornell researchers</a> also found that environmental volunteers are half as likely as non-volunteers to show depressive symptoms 20 years later, whereas other forms of volunteering lower the risk by roughly 10 percent.
Environmental volunteers have the opportunity to share meaningful activity with an array of people with diverse interests and abilities. As one <a href="http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/Env_Volunteering_Full_Report.pdf/$FILE/Env_Volunteering_Full_Report.pdf" target="_hplink">British study</a> noted, the environment provides a common language and a shared purpose independent of gender, ethnic background, age, physical ability or socioeconomic status.
Green volunteers are the catalysts who make communities more liveable -- enhancing aesthetic values and transforming public spaces. To find a green volunteer opportunity, check out the website <a href="http://www.volunteer.gov/gov/" target="_hplink">Volunteer.gov</a>. <em>Flickr photo by: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nashvillecorps/6214503510/" target="_hplink">NashvilleCorps</a></em>
Protecting the environment also helps older adults gain a sense of generativity -- the notion of working to achieve something for the good of future generations.
Tim Reynolds, 64, volunteers for several organizations devoted to preservation of nature and personally maintains about 10 miles of hiking trails. Why does he do it? He told me:
I have no children to leave this beautiful area to. So I want to leave things nice after I die for the next generations, for other people to enjoy in the future, for the earth and its inhabitants. Even though I have no children, I just think it's very important to leave a legacy and to leave behind a place that's better than when you came here, and that's what I'm trying to do, I guess, for future generations.
There's one more reason for people to become involved in the "gray and green movement" when they hit their 50s. That's because environmental threats disproportionately affect the health of the older population.
Take climate change. Older people are much more likely to be harmed by extreme temperatures and severe weather events (for example, a majority of the people who died in Hurricane Katrina was in the oldest age range). As we get older, we also become more vulnerable to environmental threats like toxic chemicals and air pollution.
So for the baby boomers and beyond, working for a cleaner environment involves not just altruism, but enlightened self-interest. Connecting gray and green issues provides a rare win-win situation: what's good for the environment is also good for us as aging individuals.
(For more information about aging and the environment, take a look at the Aging Initiative of the Environmental Protection Agency.)
Follow Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@karlpillemer