One of the beautiful hand woven fine mats that I saw on the tour of homes.
Since Lew asked me to write about what it’s like to be an older volunteer, I’ve been giving it some thought. First, let’s define “old”. I’ve met some 60 year olds who are old. I’ve also met some 23 year olds who are old. Age is more than just chronology.
I don’t think of myself as old. A young cab driver who hit on me the other day in Apia said I didn’t look a day over 50. Sweet. I don’t think I’m mentally old, either. I love to learn and find routine to be deadly.
So, if you’re “old”, either physically or mentally, the Peace Corps is not for you. Plan on lots of stair climbing. Plan on lots of walking and always using public transportation that may provide some physical challenges. In the case of the Pacific Island posts, plan on sleeping or sitting on cement for hours at a time.
Being mentally old is a larger challenge. Flexibility is a key challenge in the PC. Resiliency is also key. Being self-reliant and able to find your own way in ambiguous situations is also critical. Having a positive perspective makes life in the PC so much easier for you and the people around you.
I was in Italy once, in late July. It was blazing hot. One woman commented on the heat every two minutes or so, saying how miserable she was. Since we were all dripping with sweat and uncomfortable, her commentary didn’t help. Finally, another member of the gang blew up and said “Do you think we have air conditioning coming out of our butts? We’re hot too, so shut up!” Training was like that. There were times we were all sick and tired of the whole thing. Physically uncomfortable and mentally drained. It comes with being in Peace Corps. Better to have someone point out something funny or beautiful than something unpleasant we already knew all too well.
My group of volunteers are almost all fresh out of college, in their early 20’s. Because of not just the age difference, but also a different mind set, I felt somewhat like an outsider with most of my group. I’m ok with that and was prepared for not just the cultural adjustment to the Samoans, but also a group of young volunteers.
I’ve heard many returned PCV’s say that they’re lifelong friends with their group. I doubt I will be. Some, definitely. I’m much more likely to be lifelong friends with the Samoan/American PC staff. We’re just in a different place in our lives.
Peace Corps does not cut any breaks for older volunteers. JICA, the Japanese equivalent to PC, gives cars to volunteers over 50 to use. A fabulous idea, IMHO, that I can’t imagine ever happening in PC.
Because I’m in Samoa, where age is greatly respected, I do get some breaks, because it would make the Samoans very uncomfortable to see me in a difficult situation. For example, during training they didn’t place me in the closest house to the training fale because it was a house chock full of people and little kids. Instead, I walked further but was in a quiet house with another “old” woman. The other older volunteer and I also got to ride with the Samoan language trainers to center days in Apia, when someone with a car was in the village. A wonderful perk, avoiding the crowded bus.
PC also doesn’t cut any slack for us geezers when it comes to language training, either. Having said that, by the time you finish language training they’ve invested a lot in you and aren’t looking for ways to send you home. They know that it can be harder for us to learn a new language and may take longer. I’ll be getting a tutor, at PC expense, starting in January. I know one guy who didn’t pass the language proficiency, but brought such a positive attitude and so many other skills, that he flourished during his service.
Another challenge for older volunteers is that we may be used to being in charge. That definitely won’t happen in PC. In training the Peace Corps is in charge during the day. At night, your host family is in charge and they take the responsibility very seriously. I’ve heard that’s true worldwide, by the way. After training, as we’re trying to become part of our communities, being the American version of assertive and in charge will not win friends in your new community.
All in all, aside from the lack of physical amenities that we’re used and to being in control of our own lives, PC is much like any other new experience. It takes patience, flexibility and willingness to learn. I’m willing to learn and am working on the patience and flexibility.
Lew, I don’t know if I answered your questions. I’m loving my PC experience and hope you will too. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve cried more times in the past few months than I have in the past several years. But they were tears of joy as often as tears of frustration. PC isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t for everyone. The PC is geared toward 20 somethings, so you may get as annoyed as I did at some of the application process and training. But it’s just that – annoying, nothing more.
I’ve heard repeatedly that PC training is the worst part of service. If the past 3 months is as bad as it gets, the remaining two years will be golden. The Peace Corps wants more “over 50’s” and I hope they get them. It’s a great way to make a difference – to yourself and others. Like the PC tag line says: Life is Calling. How Far Will You Go?