When 88-year-old Dorinne MacNab was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s more than a decade ago, she asked her doctor if there was anything she could do to battle the disease and keep her mind sharp.

The New Retirement: Seniors in Canada

CBC News is presenting a series on life for people 60 years and older. Canadians are living longer than ever before, a fact that is radically changing the meaning of retirement. Many people see it as a time of reinvention, a time to try new things.

CBC News is publishing stories on seniors who are doing remarkable things in the so-called twilight years.

Besides practising a musical instrument or playing bridge, her doctor advised her to engage in as much conversation as she could. That wasn’t easy for MacNab, who lived on her own. So she turned to Seniors for Seniors, an Ontario-based organization (with some branches on the east coast) that engages seniors to provide in-home care for other, older seniors.

MacNab says she not only found someone to talk to but companions who understood her.

"To talk to somebody who is in their 20s, they can’t talk about the same history as I can, they weren’t even here," MacNab said. "I have to have somebody that has a little more background, that we have something in common."

For the past decade, MacNab has had several seniors slightly younger than herself come to her house nearly five times a week to help with basic home care, meals, errands and, most importantly, conversation. Although MacNab acknowledged a younger volunteer could do all those things, she said that with her situation, she needs a lot of empathy.

"It can be very frustrating when I don’t remember things… I think old people have more patience than the younger people do."

Number of ‘junior-seniors’ growing

People are living longer and healthier lives, and as the baby boom generation enters retirement, many active seniors are willing to offer their services to older seniors.

A report by the National Seniors Council found that in 2006, approximately 670,000 people — or 16.5 per cent of Canada’s 4.1 million seniors — "provided some form of unpaid care to another senior." As the population ages, the trend of seniors having to care for other seniors – like parents, siblings or spouses – is likely to increase.

Peter Cook, founder of Seniors for Seniors, reports a large increase in the number of people calling his organization to be "junior-senior" employees to help others in their twilight years. Cook says his junior-seniors get paid more than minimum wage.

Sandra Davidson, 67, is one of the junior-seniors who work for Seniors for Seniors. Davidson’s children live outside the province, and after spending most of her life as homemaker, holding some temporary office jobs and then going through a divorce, she was looking for a way to earn money that also gave her a feeling of fulfillment.

"[The seniors] can relate to me because even though there is a generation gap, it’s still very similar to our upbringing and our values and morals," Davidson said. "I think they enjoy talking to me because I can talk on their level and relate to what they went through."

'For the older people who are giving the support, it is reinforcing their purpose in life, that they are socially engaged, and people who are socially engaged and active are healthier and they have a longer life.'— Janice O’Keefe, director for the Centre for Aging in Nova Scotia

Janice O’Keefe, a professor at Mount St. Vincent University and director for the Centre for Aging in Nova Scotia, says it’s important to ensure that seniors can be engaged in their community, and helping other seniors is a mutually beneficial arrangement that just makes sense.

"I think that for the older people who are giving the support, it is reinforcing their purpose in life, that they are socially engaged, and people who are socially engaged and active are healthier and they have a longer life," she said.

Paul Stolee, a professor at the University of Waterloo specializing in geriatric care, said that despite being an underused demographic in the workforce, most seniors are healthy and have a lot to contribute.

"They represent a tremendous skilled resource, a very valuable segment of the population," Stolee said. "They are active, they are volunteers, they have time and ability to participate, they have wisdom to bring."

A ‘skilled resource’

Peter Cook took notice of this more than 25 years ago, when his mother, then over 80, mentioned that "all her friends – even those younger than she — [were] bored to tears with nothing to do."

Inspired by this, and the fact that many older people who needed assistance were deemed too healthy to qualify for government support, Cook launched Seniors for Seniors. The organization now employs 250 to 300 members, including people like 63-year-old Bob Rutledge.

A former electronic technician with Air Canada, Rutledge wanted to stay busy and feel useful in retirement, especially since his wife is still working. He works part-time with Seniors for Seniors, driving people to doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping and general errands. 

Rutledge says he likes the job because it brings about immediate results -- he can see how his work is positively affecting others.

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Geriatric experts say that seniors who continue to be social in their later years are healthier and live longer.

"With my previous jobs and I guess with a lot of jobs, you don’t really have that feeling at the end of the day that you’ve made a difference," Rutledge said. But he says that with Seniors for Seniors, "you can really see their happiness, you can really see them light up when they see you."

There’s a large portion of the population that works with other seniors and doesn’t get paid at all.

For Henderson Scott, volunteering is somewhat generational in nature. As a youth growing up in South Mountain, Ont., he worked as a camp counsellor. As a young professor in Toronto, he joined Big Brothers, and as an older adult, he began helping those with literacy issues.

Now, the 80-year-old and his 74-year-old wife, Cairine, volunteer at Belmont House, a retirement home in downtown Toronto.

Whether Henderson works in the tuck shop while Cairine organizes the library or they both take a group to a play, they feel a welcome part of the community.

"[The seniors] really appreciate us and I always say it’s mutual, because we really enjoy going there," Scott said. "I never awaken and say, ‘I wish I didn’t have to go.’"

How do seniors rate in volunteering?

According to a National Seniors Council report, the probability of volunteering usually decreases with age. The reasons for that include no longer having the ability to drive or the disposable income that allows one to volunteer.

"It can be expensive to be a volunteer," O’Keefe said.

Even so, seniors tend to average more hours of volunteer work than their younger counterparts. In a 2007 report, these seniors are called "top volunteers" – that is, the 25 per cent of the people who give more than 171 hours or their time for others annually.

The report added that factors such as higher education, religious service attendance and having access and the ability to drive a vehicle helped increase the amount of time they put in.

Despite such obstacles, council reports and gerontologists say that the majority of seniors are capable of helping and benefit themselves and society while doing so.

"The take-home message here is that most seniors are healthy and well and are actually helping those who aren’t," said O’Keefe.