More seniors becoming Peace Corps volunteers
By Constance Casey Newhouse News Service
They're idealistic, confident and adventurous. They really hate being bored. They're not fresh out of college, but so what?
There are nearly 500 volunteers older than 50 in the Peace Corps, a number that keeps growing.
Clemenceau Williams, 67, for example, says, "I can't be idle." On the phone from Lukau, a village in South Africa, she added, "I'm just not fit for the bridge-club circuit."
These engaged elders like Williams often speak dismissively of bridge and golf and other supposedly age-appropriate activities. They've chosen to do something they see as useful, even though it's not easy and a Peace Corps hitch is two years. At 60 or 70, two years might be a substantial portion of the rest of your life.
Williams took off for South Africa last year in the same group of 41 volunteers as Jason Carter, 22, newly graduated from Duke University. Carter is the great-grandson of the most famous older Peace Corps volunteer - Miss Lillian, the late mother of former President Jimmy Carter.
When Lillian Carter went to India in 1967 to serve as a nurse in a factory clinic, she was 68, the rare mature person in a crowd of recent college graduates. Since then, the number of volunteers over 50 has risen steadily. Now the figure is 8 percent of the 6,500 volunteers serving in 80 countries.
After retirement, Williams found substitute teaching in Tuskegee, Ala., "old hat" and official senior-citizen activities unbearably boring. Similarly, Rose de Turnier, 78, who'd taught on a Navajo reservation when she was raising two children, found retirement in Arizona insufficiently stimulating and is now teaching English in Madagascar. After her husband's death, Pauline Salser, 78, left the Kansas dairy farm they'd operated for 40 years to run a woman's poultry cooperative in rural Morocco.
Former as well as current older volunteers report the same pattern: They valued what they'd learned in their work lives and wanted to apply it.
At first, Frank Zelazny, an engineer, thought he wanted to spend his retirement deep-sea fishing but after less than a year, at age 71, he left the Florida Keys to repair medical equipment in hospitals in the Ukraine.
At 72, Alice Gingold closed her Margate, N.J., commercial real-estate firm to live in a dorm with several hundred 20-year-olds in Zvolen, Slovakia, where she teaches the principles of capitalism to factory managers there.
Jeanne Kretschmer, a Detroit native and mother of seven, went to Fiji when she was 67 to teach business practices to Fijians who, she notes, have no word for profit in their language.
For volunteers of any age, joining the Peace Corps generally means going halfway around the world to live for twoace Corps generally means going halfway around the world to live for two years in a place that may have no electricity and no hot water. And it means getting by with a small stipend that supports a standard of living just as spare as that of the people you serve. (For Frank Zelazny that meant riding in an overcrowded second-class train carriage on his frequent 10-hour trips between Lviv and Kiev.)
Despite the uncompromising conditions, the Peace Corps expects to recruit many more mature volunteers. There is no upper age limit, and as the pool of potential gray-haired volunteers grows, recruitment efforts are aiming increasingly at the over-65 crowd. Over the next 30 years the population of Americans older than 65 will double, to 70 million.
As the supply increases, so will the demand, Peace Corps director Mark Gearan, 42, predicts. Host countries have become more insistent about asking for volunteers with experience and immediately applicable skills, with the most intense demand at the moment for business professionals in the former Soviet Union.
The benefits of recruiting older volunteers, according to Gearan, far outweigh the disadvantages. The disadvantages include a higher drop-out rate for seniors (28 percent as opposed to 20 percent overall) and increased difficulty learning a new language. In-country Peace Corps supervisors report that older volunteers often take a bit more maintenance. (Some care was taken, for example to give de Turnier a telephone in her Madagascar post.) Not surprisingly, the mature volunteers ask many more questions. But overall, supervisors say, they tend to be more resourceful and more patient with the pace of a developing country.
Williams is not one of the high-maintenance volunteers. Good-humored and flexible, she comes from a family of schoolteachers, preachers and nurses in Greensboro, Ala.
"I'm not afraid of the boonies," she said. "I grew up in the boonies."
Williams, who graduated from Tuskegee University, is at the beginning of her second year of living in a hut in a family compound in the South African village of Lukau. The compound has a water pump, but the pump goes dry at least once a month when the reservoir is low. She misses hot showers and being able to wash her hair often. She walks 2 1/2 miles to the public minivan she rides to the three schools where she trains teachers. To talk to her daughter and grandson in Florida, she goes 12 miles to a phone by the side of the road.
Like many older volunteers, she notes, she is listened to with respect in a way that some of the younger volunteers aren't.
"In the countries we're working in, age is respected," Peace Corps director Gearan observed. "Also, living modestly is even more impressive to the hosts when the person doing it is older."
Often a family Peace Corps connection draws the older volunteers. When fishing starily Peace Corps connection draws the older volunteers. When fishing started to bore Zelazny, one of his three sons, who'd been in the Peace Corps in Kenya, suggested he apply. Zelazny protested he was too old, but his son insisted. When Zelazny got to the Ukraine, one of his two suitcases was lost and his room was freezing. He thought of dropping out. But soon he saw that the expertise he'd developed in a career at a medical-instruments company was a perfect fit with a chronic problem in the country. The hospitals were struggling with old and often defective medical devices donated by Western aid groups like X-ray machines and support systems for premature babies.
The upcoming baby-boomer bulge is likely to be more active physically and even more enthusiastic. For example, after 28 years of marriage and successful careers as Merrill Lynch vice presidents, Chuck and Eloise Hanner, 51 and 49, are raring to go to Central America as Peace Corps volunteers in a few months. The Hanners, who now live in San Diego, Calif., went to Afghanistan in the Peace Corps right after graduation from the University of Idaho.
Arriving in Kabul in 1971 to teach English to young Afghani government employees, Eloise remembers, "We got sick after four days and were sick for two years." The drop-out rate for Afghanistan was one of the highest in the Peace Corps, close to 40 percent, but they stuck, and they loved it.
Both Hanners value the intense connections formed in their two years in Afghanistan. "We have friends we made in the Peace Corps who are dearer and closer than friends we made in 20 years in San Diego," Chuck Hanner said.
The condo the Hanners will probably sell is on a golf course, with a view out over the city. "You can't just play golf," Chuck said more than once, though he cut short an interview to hurry to a golf date.
For Chuck, the Peace Corps may be a cure for midlife, developed-world angst. "Life is like an absurdist play - the great expectation that comes to nothing," Chuck mused. "Everyone is trying to attain something. Once you attain it, it disappears in your hands."
One gerontologist, Dr. Carl Eisdorfer, noted that the Peace Corps could be a cure for what may be the worst aspect of aging, the sense that you're not doing something valuable in your life.
"One of the great problems of aging is that you lose your raison d'etre," said Eisdorfer, 68, director of the University of Miami Center on Adult Development and Aging, and himself a former Peace Corps field supervisor. Alice Gingold's sense of her own motives was echoed by other current and returned older volunteers. Gingold said, "I wanted to accomplish something I could see, something that would last after I'd gone."
Why the Peace Corps and not something a little easier? "It's one of the few places mature people can find sustained, substantial, life-changing volunteer work," said mature people can find sustained, substantial, life-changing volunteer work," said Marc Freedman, author of the forthcoming book, "Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America."
"There's a real mismatch," Freedman said, "between the size of this population and the opportunities that are out there. A lot of people who aren't ready to up and go to Mali would like to do something more substantial than painting the school over the weekend."
When they come back from Peace Corps service, older volunteers tend to find a cause at home rather than opt for bridge and golf.
Jeanne Kretschmer, now 75, signed up with the Corporation for National Service and worked in Orlando, Fla., with kids who'd dropped out of school. She was recently given the Lillian Carter Award for people over 55 who have served in the Peace Corps and continued their altruistic work on return. When Kretschmer tells people about her Peace Corps service, she says, "Most people are envious, which always strikes me as so tragic. If you envy me, you should do it."