Serving as an older American: Insights and tips from the field

Lisa Gill works with a student at a career program in her community.
By David Jarmul
Jan. 6, 2017

Older Americans who think about joining the Peace Corps have lots of questions. 

Those who actually sign up have even more questions as they prepare to quit their jobs, say goodbye to their families and head overseas for 27 months.

Valerie Harden, for example. Lately she’s been wondering “what will it be like to live with people whose everyday routines are so different from anything I’m accustomed to.” Or Julie Allison. She’s unsure what clothes to buy and whether she’ll be able to learn a new language. “Will I have any friends my age?” she asks. “Will my closest Peace Corps Volunteer friend be the age of my granddaughter?”

Harden and Allison are both scheduled to leave next spring to become Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country. They will join hundreds of other Americans age 50 or older now serving worldwide, accounting for about 7 percent of nearly 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers in more than 60 countries.

Deborah Sesek, a community development Volunteer, feeds dogs at an animal shelter where she volunteers.
Deborah Sesek, a community development Volunteer, feeds dogs at an animal shelter where she volunteers.

What awaits them? I sought answers from some current and recently returned older Volunteers in Moldova, the small former Soviet state located between Romania and Ukraine.

“Peace Corps is a challenging and difficult undertaking, and your image of service is probably very different from the reality of service,” says Deborah Sesek of Cleveland, a community development Volunteer in Moldova. “Having practiced law for 35 years and learned to deal with surprises and expect the unexpected, I think it is critically important that Volunteers — especially those who are older — approach Peace Corps service with no expectations. Each Volunteer’s service is uniquely their own.”

Donna Barnes, a professor at Howard University, thought she was following this advice but found the transition “easier said than done.” Looking back now after seven months in Moldova, she says “I don’t think I was that honest with myself. There are just some things that I am not willing to accept when it comes to living arrangements or personal hygiene.” Now that she’s largely figured it out, she generally loves her job as a health educator in a small village.

Tom Corr, a former attorney in Berkeley, Calif., has been settling into his village, too, working with colleagues such as Ilie Leahu, the deputy mayor. The “steady comfort” of his previous life has been “replaced by a confusing and challenging environment” — but he welcomes the change. “You will amaze yourself with your ability to learn and adapt,” he says. “Each day will be measured by small victories and small defeats, and somehow the accounts always balance net positive.”

Tom Corr, a former attorney, works with colleagues such as Ilie Leahu, the deputy mayor.
Tom Corr, a former attorney, works with colleagues such as Ilie Leahu, the deputy mayor.

Corr and other older Volunteers from Moldova cite language learning as a particular challenge. They and the other trainees all began Romanian classes shortly after arriving in the country and moving to villages to live with host families.

“Language training is intense,” recalls Jim Fletcher, a retired commercial real estate broker from Raleigh. “It’s a fire hose of information six days a week that can be overwhelming.”

Tom Harvey, also from North Carolina, was “tired at the end of the day and could not study well later, so I had to adjust; I would get out of bed early in the morning and study that which I most needed to learn. Afternoons and nights were for reviewing the day’s information. It took me much longer than I expected to settle on a schedule.”

“Language learning can be more difficult for older Volunteers, especially if they have never spoken a language other than English,” says Sandra Dale Woodruff, who came to Moldova from Tampa. “Recognize that even if you never make it to the fluency level to which you aspire, you can still make a big difference in your community. As the English teacher from my village once told me, ‘You only need Romanian for two years, but they are going to need English for their entire lives.’”

Sandra Dale Woodruff reviews a Thanksgiving poster with her student
Sandra Dale Woodruff reviews a Thanksgiving poster with her student.

Being older has advantages, too. “The older one becomes, the more life experiences one has,” says Deeporne Beardsley, who recently completed her service as an English teacher in Moldova. “They are huge assets that greatly enhance one’s chance of success. In my group, the oldest person was 73 years old and she successfully finished her service.”

Dee’s husband Brent, with whom she served, agrees, saying he came to view his “grey hair as an asset.” Now back together in Tucson, he says, “Moldovans have a lot of respect for older people and the experience that come with their years. This will very likely be true wherever you end up serving.”

That’s been true for Champa and me, who came to Moldova this past June. Being parents and grandparents has given us an instant connection with many of the people we’ve met here.

“Depending upon your country of service, you may be treated like a frail oldster (and you’re visibly so not) and they will absolutely invade your bubble. Let it go,” says Lisa Gill, who has been serving with her husband, Steve, both in their 60s. “This is not a job. This is a choice. Be open-minded, patient and flexible and lead from behind.

Cynthia Katocs, who came to Moldova from Seattle, says, “This is your time to explore the world and use your skills to assist. While volunteering you will pick up many new skills to take with you. Peace Corps pays your bills. They have excellent medical personnel and are there to help you along your way. All you need to do is learn to relax, learn a new culture and be helpful. It is difficult at times but the positive will always outnumber the difficulties.”

Ultimately, success depends less on a Volunteer’s age than on what’s in their heart, says Andrea Benda, 66, from Virginia. “I would say to anyone considering Peace Corps service that, in whatever manner your age impacts your work and life at home, it will be the same serving in the Peace Corps.”

To read more about serving as an older Volunteer, visit David Jarmul’s blog, Not Exactly Retired.

David Jarmul

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