Who Knew? A little history of RSVP

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May (almost over now, we know) is Older Americans Month. “Older,” for most of us, is relative – “older than me.” Remember the saying that people over 30 were not to be trusted? Or, “40 is the new 30.” My mother admitted at age 92 that yeah, she guesses she’s old now.

A person can collect early/reduced social security retirement at the age of 62, or they can wait until 67. AARP lets you join at 50, and in Virginia you can take classes for free at any public college after your 60th birthday. Demographic data often designates “seniors” as 65 and older. Pick your “older” to suit your situation.

In 1963, Senior Citizens Month (later designated Older Americans Month) was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy. At that time, there were 17 million living Americans over age 65. About one-third of them lived in poverty, and there were very few programs to support them. Today, there are over 50 million such older Americans, which is 15.6% of the population or one in every seven individuals, and there are lots of programs to support them. In Fairfax County the statistic is a little lower, at 13.4%, likely accounted for by those of us who retire elsewhere. And we are, indeed, an aging population – between 2007 and 2017 the over-65 population jumped by 34%; in contrast the under-65 population crept up by only 4%.

Lyndon Johnson signed the Older Americans Act of 1965 as part of his Great Society domestic agenda. The Act provides for services that promote independence, like meals-on-wheels, in-home supports, transportation programs, legal services, and caregiver support. The law has several times been reauthorized; in March 2020 it was reauthorized through 2024.

How does this connect to RSVP?

In 1967, the Community Service Society of Staten Island had developed a new volunteer program where older persons used their talents, skills, and time to help their neighbors. The program started with 23 volunteers; its genius was quickly recognized and the idea spread rapidly. In 1969 the Older Americans Act was amended to include RSVP as program under its auspices, and the National Retired Senior Volunteer Program (the and was added later) started in 1971 with a federal grant of $5M and the mandate to engage those over 60 years of age. Click HERE to see the original law – it’s pretty cool.

In 1993, the Corporation for National and Community Service was created to administer AmeriCorps and the newly created Senior Corps – a merger of the Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, and RSVP programs. Today Senior Corps is our largest volunteer program for older (and older got younger – RSVP now engages those over 55) individuals, with some 400,000 volunteers nationwide.

So now you know a little of the history of RSVP, and you were reminded of what we already knew – “older” is a relative thing” and we’re just as old as we act and feel.

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