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Gray, green, and active: Environmental volunteerism benefits older adults and society by Karl Pillemer, Ph.D.

Martin Phillips volunteers many hours each month in local environmental organizations, helping to organize trail clean-ups and testing water quality in streams. His goal is to help preserve the earth for future generations, even though he will not personally see the benefits. Maria Groves volunteers as a receptionist for a nature center, noting that she enjoys the children who participate in the programs and socializing with staff and other volunteers. Janice Phelps has always loved being outside in nature; her political work on environmental issues comes from a deep attachment to the natural world, which she feels is sacred and must be preserved. John Trent is politically conservative and will tell you right away: “I’m no tree-hugger!” But he has spent a lifetime hunting and fishing and is concerned about the destruction of natural areas that used to teem with wildlife, so he volunteers to protect them.

These individuals 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 have become environmental volunteers, working to create a sustainable society and to conserve our natural resources. Not only do these “gray and green” volunteers help solve one of the major challenges of our time, but research shows environmental volunteering also leads to improved health and well-being of older persons. Now researchers, policy makers, and non-profit organizations are seeking ways to encourage environmental volunteering and civic engagement (EVCE) among individuals after retirement.

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