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How to Become a Mentor — and Why It’s Good for Your Health

Volunteering is a way to share your skills with people who need them and stay connected to your community


spinner image Janice Magri reads to students at Goodnoe Elementary in Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Janice Magri, 81, reads to third grade students at Goodnoe Elementary in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, as part of the S.A.G.E. mentorship program.
Rachel Wisniewski

Two days a week, Janice Magri volunteers as a teacher’s aide for the third graders at Goodnoe Elementary in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She files tests and homework sheets for the teacher, does crafts with the kids and makes sure to spend time with the children who need extra help with schoolwork.  

Magri, 81, says it’s difficult to remember what it was like to be 8 years old, but mentoring children that age through S.A.G.E. helps her understand their experiences growing up during “a totally different time” and empathize with the needs of the greater community. S.A.G.E. (Senior Adults for Greater Education) connects adults 55 and older with volunteer mentoring opportunities in some Pennsylvania school districts. It’s one of thousands of mentorship programs nationwide that help people in their later years find ways to help younger generations.

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Mentoring is a win-win, Magri says — benefiting both mentor and mentee.

“I think seniors shouldn’t be afraid to step out of their comfort zone … or think that you don’t have anything to offer. Seniors have a lot to offer. We’ve experienced a lot of life,” says Magri, who has been mentoring with S.A.G.E. for eight years. “I’m contributing, and it makes me feel very, very good about myself.”

Here’s why you should consider mentoring and how to get started.  

Why be a mentor?  

It helps you find purpose. It’s common for retirees to go through a loss of identity after exiting the workforce, says Nancy Schlossberg, 94, a retired professor of counseling and author who specializes in life transitions, living in Sarasota, Florida. People need a reason to get up in the morning and to get through the days, months and years after retirement.

That’s what mentoring does for Magri, who lives by herself.

“When I retired, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, it was up to me to find things to do to keep myself occupied and not complain to my children that I don’t have anything to do.”

She says she looks forward to the days she gets to mentor in the classroom. “I can’t wait. It gets me out.”

It’s also a way to get over the loss of a partner — something many retirees go through, says Nancy Larger, the partnerships manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay.

“A lot of our seniors move here with a spouse, and then the one spouse will pass,” Larger says. Many survivors feel lonely and without purpose, but mentoring “breathes new life into them” when they realize “how much they have to offer a child,” Larger says.

It keeps them physically and mentally active.

Magri says she’s constantly learning new skills by working with children in the classroom and helping the teacher. (And she’s surprised by the high-level math they learn at such an early age.) 

Beryl Katz, founder and executive director of S.A.G.E., says the mentor-mentee relationship isn’t only about a grownup pouring knowledge into a younger person; the knowledge flows both ways.

When a second grade teacher whose class participated in the S.A.G.E. program noticed some students were computer-savvy but a bit shy, the teacher switched up the mentor/mentee role to help the students build confidence. 

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“Those students realized that they could indeed teach somebody, something that they were good at,” Katz says. “Each generation can learn from the other,” and that dynamic works well for seniors as well. “If you keep learning, you don’t get stale,” Katz says. 

There’s research to back up how healthy that is. For people older than 50, volunteering for roughly two hours a week “was associated with reduced risk of mortality and physical functioning limitations, higher physical activity, and several beneficial psychosocial outcomes,” according to a 2020 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.  

spinner image Magri tutoring a student
Magri spends one-on-one time with students in the classroom.
Rachel Wisniewski

How to get started 

Not knowing how to become a mentor is one of the biggest challenges for those over 50, says Delia Hagan, senior director of program operations at Mentor, a nonprofit headquartered in Boston that aims to make mentoring more accessible. If you want to become a mentor but aren’t sure where to start, here are some general tips.

Step 1: Consider the details

Before you start on your path to mentoring, think about the following:

  • With what ages do you want to work? At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay, Larger says mentoring the “littles” starts as early as age 5, in hopes that the “big,” or mentor, can stay with the children for the long term. Larger says the application process asks potential mentors what age groups they are comfortable working with to ensure a good match. Aside from S.A.G.E. and Big Brothers Big Sisters, organizations such as studentmentor.org help college students as they enter the workforce by pairing them with professionals and retirees. 
  • What are your skills? Think about your capacity to help, whether you want to guide a teen applying to college or to develop a youngster’s reading skills. This will determine the focus of the program you consider. At S.A.G.E., for example, “we match our volunteers with their skill set and interests,” Katz says.
  • How much of a time commitment can you make? Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay can require as little as an hour a week in its school-based programs or as much as 15 months for its community-based programs in which quality one-on-one time is spent outside the classroom — whether at a museum, library or park, Larger says. 

Step 2: Find an organization

There are many ways to find an organization that works for you. Mentoring.org is a good place to begin. Those interested can fill out a form online, which asks basic information (name, email and zip code), to find opportunities near them.

Once the form is filled out, applicants get access to local or online programs. The list offers details of each program, such as ages served, mentorship focus (job skills, literacy, etc.) and where the mentoring will take place.

If a program seems like a good fit, potential mentors can click on it and leave their contact information. The program coordinator will follow up with the applicant and discuss how to get started.

If you already know of a program you would like to be a part of in your community, you can contact it directly via its main phone number.

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spinner image Magri mentoring at Goodnoe Elementary
Magri says she looks forward to the days she gets to mentor the children at Goodnoe Elementary.
Rachel Wisniewski

Step 3: Understand the process for becoming a mentor

Protocols for starting in a mentorship program vary in each organization. However, you’ll likely undergo a background check and other types of vetting. There will also probably be some training.

The screening process with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay typically includes an hour-and-a-half interview that covers 17 pages of questions between a matching specialist and a potential mentor, Larger says. This is in addition to fingerprinting, a thorough background check and orientation training. Once everything is completed, the matching process between the “big” and the “little” starts. That in itself can take a while.

“We don’t match to match, just for numbers. That’s not what we’re about; we want a match to be successful. And that’s why some people may wait longer than others,” Larger says.

Although background checks are fairly standard when becoming a mentor, not all processes are as lengthy to get started. Check with the program to get a full list of what needs to happen before the mentoring gets underway.  

Not just one way to be a mentor

When Magri was growing up, her mentors were primarily her parents, she says.

Mentors are often thought of as someone outside the family who signs up through a program, but a lot of mentorship happens within the family unit, Hagan says.

You may be a mentor if you show up for a younger person as a caring neighbor, through a church or synagogue, she says.

“So much of mentoring across the country comes from those kind of relationships that are happening outside of a program context,” Hagan says. Research by the nonprofit Mentor group shows that 38 percent of informal mentors were 50 or older, while the same demographic represented only 17 percent of mentors in structured programs.

“A lot of adults are mentors and don’t see themselves that way, which is kind of tragic, too, because not only [are they] not tapping into the power that they have to make an impact, but they also don’t [understand] the value for themselves of knowing the impact on people’s lives,” Hagan says.

Schlossberg says that in some ways, you may already be a mentor if you listen and help others in need to see options they may not have found for themselves.

Her work as a professor and as a volunteer with the Senior Friendship Centers in Sarasota, Florida, has been primarily with adults. She says needing a mentor doesn’t end at 18 or when your professional life stops.

“You need a mentor all through life. … You always need somebody to help you as you search for a new path,” Schlossberg says.

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