Facebook and teenagers are not normally the first words associated with caring for older people. But in Bolivia, strategic use of social media has helped local foundation Nieto Voluntario (Voluntary Grandchild in Spanish) recruit young volunteers.
Nieto Voluntario was launched in June 2015 with the broad aim of bringing joy to older people. Their volunteers work to increase older citizens' self-esteem while reducing loneliness and depression.
The charity works with older people's homes and shelters run by churches or the state specifically targeting older people with low incomes who cannot support themselves financially. Many have been abandoned by their families and some are brought to the centers from living on the streets. The foundation's volunteers organize events in the homes, adopt older people, and help to bring homeless older people in from the streets.
By engaging the nontraditional demographic of local youth, the foundation aims to create an enabling environment for better social inclusion and to include everyone in helping tackle an issue that is rising up the development agenda: an aging global population.
Founders and national coordinators Mariana Villegas Villarroel and Silver Reyes are both experienced in marketing and advertising. They used this skillset to design a Facebook recruitment campaign aimed at people aged 19-24. Within two months, they had almost 250 volunteers, mostly aged 15-25. This demographic does not usually work with older people, according to Reyes.
“Many of our volunteers had recently lost their grandparents,” Reyes said. “Young people often tend more toward working with children. Our volunteers found they took to the work well because they hadn't had children yet, but had a lot of experience looking after their grandparents.”
Their social media-oriented approach is getting results: Since its inception they have reunited 13 older people with their families through use of carefully designed Facebook posts with a photo of the person, which are then shared by volunteers and friends. They typically reach 3,000-4,000 users through organic promotion.
Reyes and Villegas Villarroel take meticulous care to produce content that appeals to a younger audience. Their logo is a brightly colored hands reaching for a heart, which is designed to be fun and informal. They use the hashtag #YoSoyNietoVoluntario (I am a volunteer grandchild) in all their posts and photos. They favor the affectionate terms “abuelito” or “abuelita” (grandpa or grandma) over formal terms such as “personas de la tercera edad” (people of the third age, a respectful but formal Spanish term to refer to older people).
“People relate to the word 'grandpa,'” said Reyes. “At home, they have grandma and grandpa, not people of the ‘third age’.”
Many institutions in the third sector and beyond make the conceptual error of using social networks simply as billboards, said Reyes. “Networks have the power to connect ... People use them to inform, but they are not there to inform, they are there to connect.”
Connecting with volunteers through social media can be a fast and effective way of communicating. Use of social media goes beyond Facebook, according to Dr. Mauricio Osorio Terán, head of the department for older adults in the municipal government of Cochabamba. Social workers across the entire department have a WhatsApp group, which they use to find older people who are reported missing.
“Young people are always on their phones, so when they see that we need something, they come,” said Sister Maria del Carmen Laguna Esteras, mother superior at Hogar San José home for older adults in Cochabamba. “There are key points of need, such as the military parade for independence day — about 70 volunteers showed up.”
5 ‘pro tips’ on leveraging volunteers for impact
by Silver Reyes, national coordinator, Nieto Voluntario
1. Take advantage of your social networks! Use them to create a conversation and actually connect, not just to inform or advertise.
2. Pay very careful attention to your organization's brand image. Tailor every word and image of your communication toward your target audience.
3. When recruiting, respond quickly to applications and make it easy for volunteers to contact you. Online forms, WhatsApp and Facebook work really well for that.
4. Have an action plan! Volunteers want to get a hands-on job as soon as possible. If they feel it's taking too long, they'll walk away.
5. Trust your team. Give volunteers real responsibilities, make them part of the decision-making process and they will repay your trust with great work.
Globally, older people's associations are often run by well-educated and able-bodied older citizens. In many countries, older people are less likely to be educated, meaning that young people can play an important role in community groups, according to Alice Livingstone, social protection policy adviser at HelpAge International.
“Younger people can fill a gap in older people's associations, by helping with things like using computers and accessing information,” she said.
Involving younger people in community volunteering is valuable in terms of social inclusion of youth, teaching them important transferable skills.
“Many people who aren't in work dedicate themselves to something bad, but with this volunteering, they can dedicate themselves to something good,” Osorio Terán said. The Sustainable Development Goals recognize that youth unemployment is a problem: In almost all regions, young people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as adults aged 25 and over.
Villegas Villarroel, Sister Carmen and Osorio Terán all commented that engaging young people to work with older citizens teaches them patience, caring and respect. This helps to combat the problems that lead to older people being excluded in the first place.
“We would like to get to the stage where there are no older people in the streets,” Villegas Villarroel said.
Problems with retention
The youth volunteer ethic fits in with comments made in a 2013 report by the U.N. secretary-general that countries should develop “policy responses to support the elderly so as to remove barriers to their full participation in society, while protecting their rights and dignity.”
There are disadvantages to relying on young volunteers however. Retention is a problem: Many of Nieto Voluntario's initial recruits are not active and they rely on a core of around 40. Since the work is voluntary, the coordinators cannot guarantee the young people will have time when they are needed.
The Sustainable Development Goals are providing impetus for more young people to work with older citizens, in line with the pledge that no one be left behind, according to Livingstone.
“I think the SDGs have led to a more intergenerational approach [than the Millennium Development Goals],” she said. “So people are not thinking, 'These are older people, these are younger people, who's neediest?'”
In Bangladesh, HelpAge International supports local organizations including Bangladesh Women's Health Coalition, Resource Integration Center, and Dhaka Ahsania Mission to campaign on older people's rights. Recent work has involved generating public awareness on elder abuse and to support the call for a U.N. convention on the rights of older people.
“This takes a broad approach, involving older people as well as youth groups and student activists,” Livingstone said.
HelpAge International has worked with a number of Bolivian institutions such as FUNDEPCO, Comunidad Aymarás Urbanos de Pampajasi, and 34 socio-legal centers around the country, where its older citizen monitoring program has increased recruitment of municipal government staff with knowledge of indigenous culture and languages.
However, in general there is little major nongovernmental organization activity focused around older citizens in Bolivia.
“[Organizations] exist for women, children, and even animals, but for older people, there's very little,” said Osorio Terán, adding that his department has had very little contact with international NGOs, but would be keen for them to offer support and training. Nationally, he would like to see organizations set up that did similar work to Nieto Voluntario, but with paid staff, rather than being dependent on volunteers.
Older people who do not have the resources to support themselves are dependent on homes and shelters run by either the state or by religious institutions. Hogar San José is the largest home for older people in Cochabamba. It currently houses 144 people, of whom 68 either do not have family, or have been abandoned by their families. It is not involved in any projects with international NGOs.
“NGOs haven't responded when I have written to them,” said Sister Carmen.
The government gives the home 9.46 Bolivianos ($1.33) per person per day for food and a small payment for clothes. The people in the home who have a pension agree to pay 75 percent of it to the home's operating costs, and the home also claims 50 percent of a monthly state benefit paid to citizens over the age of 60 to fund its operating costs. The electricity bill is paid with alms. Large expenditures such as repairs depend on finding a private donor, usually abroad.
Companies have supported the Cochabamba department for older adults with donations, however. Coca-Cola gave soft drinks and a tent for celebrations on Aug. 26, which is the day when older people are celebrated in Bolivia. Sister Carmen would like to see a more organized chain of support from businesses, especially to support homes such as Hogar San José with some of the costliest ítems, such as adult diapers and medicines.
In early 2017, Nieto Voluntario plans to set up an online donor program that would allow people to give monthly donations starting from $1. The proceeds would go to Hogar San José and three other homes, giving them greater income stability.
“Agism really affects attitudes toward older people and reduces it being seen as a priority issue,” HelpAge’s Livingstone said. “That stems from assumptions around how families live. There is an assumption that older people are taken care of.”
As urban migration increases and younger members of families move to cities or other countries to work, older people are more likely to be left on their own. Longer life expectancies mean families need to care for relatives in their later years — and foot steep medical bills — for longer.
With projected global population of people over the age of 60 due to hit 2.1 billion by 2050, according to 2015 United Nations figures, the number of workers per retiree is projected to drop with pressure on tax revenues and health care systems increasing. Governments and the development community alike will soon need to give greater priority to the aged.
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Amy Booth is a freelance journalist based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Her reporting focuses on development in Bolivia. She has written for The Guardian, New Internationalist, Bolivian Express, Latin Correspondent, and others. When she's not writing, she is an instructor in a youth arts foundation.
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