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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Seniors and the Environment

Air Date: Week of

A pilot AmeriCorps program is tapping into the skills of senior citizens for a variety of environmental projects. WBUR’s Monica Brady visited the Senior Environmental Corps of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.


CURWOOD: Seventy-six million baby boomers will reach retirement age in the next 20 years. And with life expectancy rising, these people could expect to spend as much as 30 years in retirement. A new federal jobs program is looking to make that time productive. AmeriCorps is tapping into the skills of a pool of senior volunteers to help protect the environment on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. From member station WBUR, Monica Brady reports.


BRADY: On a clear, beautiful morning, John and Amy Trautwein are on a mission. The retired couple, both 67, are cutting back wild roses, bittersweet, and locust bushes on a walking trail in East Orleans at the far end of the Cape. John leads the way with clippers in hand.

J. TRAUTWEIN: The trail we're walking on now, the last two weeks we've been cleaning it out and getting the rose bushes that have been overcrowding us. And now you see, they've mowed it, which is great.

BRADY: The Trautweins are part of the latest segment of the national service program AmeriCorps. Last year, Cape Cod became one of six sites for an experimental grant program using senior citizens to protect the environment. Seniors in the program are required to give 900 hours of service over two years. In return they receive a stipend and money they can use toward continuing their education. John Trautwein says he and his wife never had time to volunteer before retiring a year and a half ago, and their only interaction with the environment was in their back yard.

J. TRAUTWEIN: We have such a long experience of different workings and having houses. You know what to do about cleaning up your yard and cutting things, and here we are out here doing it for the Park Service. It's wonderful.

BRADY: An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 senior citizens live on the Cape year round. Mary Carchrie, director of the AmeriCorps program on the Cape, says these seniors are naturally inclined to care about their environment.

CARCHRIE: I think it's something that people become more conscious of as they get older, because they see the changes that have happened since they were young in the environment, and the directions we're going. And there's a tremendous sense of stewardship among the old about helping to preserve the Earth for future generations.

BRADY: And there is plenty of environmental work to be done on Cape Cod's fragile ecosystem, which is made up of sandy soils low in nutrients, shorelines that are sensitive to erosion, and vegetation that's unique to the Cape. Seniors in the AmeriCorps program are monitoring piping plovers, an endangered species, surveying horseshoe crabs, testing homes for radon gas, and sampling water in swimming pools. The largest group of senior AmeriCorps members is on the Massachusetts military reservation in Bourne, which is an EPA Superfund site. Ten seniors are working on a mosquito control project and helping to set up a bees for biomonitoring project. Sixty-two-year-old George Muhlebach, a retired chemist, has been an amateur beekeeper for more than 20 years.

MUHLEBACH: Bees can be used as sentinels to bring back environmental pollutants, which then can be detected in hives. It's a way to establish whether there are and what kind of pollutants could be present in an area where, for whatever reason, people do not want or should go into.

BRADY: Muhlebach will help install 20 beehives in the spring to monitor an area on the base that has dangerous contaminants, such as Royal Dutch explosive and TNT. Muhlebach explains that bees forage for pollen in a one- to two-mile radius from their hives. While collecting pollen, they're also sampling air, soil, and plants with their legs, and bringing it back to the hives, which can then be analyzed. Muhlebach will stay with the project for several years, maintaining the hives. Air Force major Bruce Ruscio, who coordinates the AmeriCorps program on the base, says seniors bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the military reservation.

RUSCIO: It's a win-win, as far as the base is concerned, and I believe as far as the RSVP volunteers are concerned. We've had a tremendous response from the military personnel here and from the outside agencies that are involved in the clean-up of the base.

falkin: These we did last Friday. We ran a digester...

BRADY: On another part of the Cape, two senior volunteers are in the basement of the Barnstable County Courthouse, processing water samples from a nearby golf course that's being irrigated with wastewater.

FALKIN: I was an environmentalist long before I came to the Cape.

BRADY: Seventy-four-year-old Bob Falkin is a retired mechanical designer. He's a member of the National Audubon Society and worked with the Clear Water Organization. His lab partner, 63-year-old Fred Anderson, had very little experience with environmentalism before he retired to the Cape and joined AmeriCorps.

ANDERSON: It's a fragile land up here, and I like the Cape so I want to contribute something to the environmental problems, you know, to take care of the problems.


ANDERSON: We've got to dilute the solutions with 30 milliliters of purified water, right?

BRADY: The two spend ten to twelve hours a week collecting and analyzing water samples for ammonia and nitrate levels. The county takes the data and compiles a more scientific analysis. Bob falkin says he enjoys working on such an important project.

FALKIN: You know, if I'm not part of the solution I'm part of the problem.

BRADY: Volunteers for AmeriCorps on Cape Cod are so enthusiastic about their environmental projects, they hope the grant will be renewed after it expires in three years.


BRADY: For Living on Earth, I'm Monica Brady on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.



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