In a matter of days my 26-year old son will be packing his bags and heading off to Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer. Am I jealous? You bet!
But as it happens, the Peace Corps is not just for the young. Those of us who are old enough to remember President Kennedy’s call to service in the 1960s are still eligible to answer it—and many of us are doing just that. While the typical Peace Corps volunteer is in his or her mid- to late twenties, 7 percent of volunteers are over the age of 50.
According to Andrea Fellows, a marketing and outreach recruiter at Peace Corps, older volunteers are invaluable because they bring deep expertise to the table. “Our first goal in the countries we serve is teaching people a skill,” she says “We love seeing people who have been working in a specific field for 10- or 20-plus years because we know they will be able to do the job very, very well.”
For example, dietician Beth Payne began her service at age 62, after retiring from her career at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Payne was assigned to work at the national nutrition agency in Gambia, West Africa, where she did policy development, reviewed reports, participated in nutritional surveillance, and taught at the local university and school of public health. “The assignment was a perfect fit,” she says. “The benefit of being an older volunteer is that you don’t become a jack-of-all-trades, but rather use your specific skills.”
Adapting to What’s Not “Normal”
In addition to a strong skill set, Fellows says, you must have solid reasons for volunteering; the emotional maturity to function far away from loved ones and friends; and cultural sensitivity. That final criterion “is huge,” Fellows notes. “People have to be willing to adapt to things that aren’t ‘normal’ to them, but that may be part of the culture where they are volunteering.” A sense of service and the ability to give freely are equally important, she adds.
Fellows also emphasizes the need to have all your ducks in a row. If you own a house, for example, will there be someone who can take care of it while you are away? Do you have children and grandchildren? Someone who may graduate from college or have a baby while you are away? “You have to be prepared to miss some of those life events,” she says. (The typical term of service in the Peace Corps is 27 months.)
Consulting with loved ones before deciding to apply is crucial, say Fellows and Payne. In Payne’s case, her adult children were delighted that she would finally fulfill a lifelong dream. “They both said, ‘You talked about it all our lives. Do it,’” Payne recalls. “If you don’t have that sort of encouragement, you can fall apart pretty fast. For your peace of mind you need to know what people who matter to you think about what you are doing.”
While all Peace Corps volunteers must be in good health, the organization does try to accommodate qualified applicants who have medical issues. “There isn’t any one thing that would prevent you from serving,” says Fellows. “We try to accommodate everyone. We recently placed a person who is HIV-positive.”
Even so, volunteers must have some level of physical fitness. Because they are not allowed to drive, volunteers in more rural places may have to walk or ride a bike to get from place to place. “All the older volunteers I served with were placed in cities or villages where this wasn’t an issue,” says Fellows, who served in the Republic of Moldova.
Of Pit Latrines and Perseverance
Payne’s assignment was in a major city where she had access to public transportation, but her language training took place in a small village without running water and electricity. She said that she was nervous about her ability to use a pit latrine. “When you get older, your knees are not so great,” she says. “I had visions of squatting and not being able to get up. It took me about four days to get used to it. The anxiety was much worse than the actual event,” she laughs.
In addition to good health, perseverance is another important trait. Older volunteers, who are accustomed to feeling competent, may face a few failures. “They have to be willing to rethink, go back to the drawing board, and talk to the locals to learn how it can be done successfully,” Fellows says.
Learning a new language at an older age can be tough, and Payne is grateful that she worked in an environment where English was the official language. But Fellows insists that language should be an older volunteer’s last concern. “Our language program and support are second to none,” she asserts. “In Peace Corps they throw you into a host family and you are forced to build upon what you learn every day.”
While citizens of their host country revere older volunteers, they can sometimes find it difficult to find a support network when so many of their colleagues are in a different life stage. “Developing some sort of a sounding board the first year that I was there was far more difficult,” Payne recalls. “There was nobody my age. Once there were people who would enjoy a glass of wine with me rather than a bottle of beer, things got much better.”
Challenges aside, Payne has no regrets. “I’m so glad I finally did it!” she says. “I learned that I can be extremely flexible and go with the flow; that I’m a better teacher than I thought I was; and that I can be patient when I need to be.”