On Being a “50+” volunteer

It’s very unusual for me to post two days in a row, but there’s a first time for everything. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot as my first official year (counting training, I’ve already been here 14 months) winds down, and I thought I’d memorialize my thoughts while they were fresh in my mind.

When I first applied to the PC, I was completely unworried about age. I passed the medical hurdles pretty easily, and I kind of figured that since I felt I was about 28 inside, everyone would just get to know me and forget about my chronological age, which at the time was 59 (I’m 61 now having had 2 birthdays in Georgia already!). I was so confident that, after over 20 years of dying my hair, I decided to cut out that nonsense and let it go natural … not that I knew what that was gonna be, exactly. As it turned out, it’s a shining, silvery, pure white, and I love it … but it’s also a big sign (along with some regrettable but inevitable wrinkles) that I’m no spring chicken. But I thought everyone would just see right past that.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Age was a much more significant barrier than I thought it would be, and even though after a year I feel things have settled out pretty well, it took so much more work and effort than I ever dreamed it would. And to be perfectly clear – I’m not talking about HCN’s, as we volunteers officially refer to locals (as in “host country nationals”). As far as I can tell, no one here could care less about my age. If anything, I’m accorded MORE respect because of it. As has often been written in other blogs and news stories, age is treated quite differently in many countries outside the U.S. Older people are not seen as antiquated or obsolete; on the contrary, wisdom and experience are valued. In my position at CHCA, I’ve made videos, designed websites, worked with designers on our annual report (a copy of which I swear one day I will be putting up on this blog!) and done all sorts of other tasks that probably would never even be contemplated as possible back home, because, you know, we geezers don’t even know how to attach a document to email. Hell, we hardly know what email is! 🙂

No. The barriers I encountered were with my fellow PCV’s. This was a big shock to me. Seriously. I honestly thought I would simply be accepted as a person, liked or disliked on the basis of my personality, not my years. In this I was wrong, and as my son pointed out to me when I whined to him about it, I really should have predicted that outcome. In fact I am older than many of these kids’ parents. And they don’t know how to deal with me, because apparently I’m not really sufficiently parent-like, but I’m also not sufficiently kid-like. I’m … sui generis.

When I arrived, one of only 3 or 4 “50+” trainees, I made it pretty clear early on that I was not interested in being anyone’s parent figure. A friend, yes. A mommy – no. Been there, done that. But I didn’t know what I was talking about. There are differences in how I approach things and socialize, and how many of my fellow volunteers do the same, though not as many as one might think. Here’s a little list of some of the differences, and some of the similarities:

1. Drinking. This is the biggest difference. Many volunteers socialize in a way I think I and my friends never did, even when we were young. For us, getting together was the point – seeing each other, talking with each other, sharing some common experience – a dinner, a concert, whatever. People often got drunk, sometimes very drunk, but it wasn’t the purpose of socializing – it was a by-product, I would say. For many volunteers here, it seems the main point is just to get inebriated. It’s like they feel they actually cannot have fun unless they are 3 sheets to the wind, although of course they often do. I have developed coping mechanisms for this. I like to socialize, and I like to drink – just not to excess. So I hang out in the earlier evening, drink a few gin & tonics, or some wine, and when it reaches critical mass, I bow out. When folks are in my home, I let them drink as much as they want, and I often join them, but again – if it gets to be too much, I slip away to my bedroom and just close the door. BTW these coping mechanisms are not effective when attending Georgian supras, where huge amounts of wine are consumed and “no” is not an option – but that’s another post!

2. Tech. Interestingly, this is NOT an area of big difference. I use my tech as much (and in many cases, more so) than lots of other volunteers. I use it in my job, with my blog, Facebook … a lot. As I recently posted, I’ve gotten more interested in video lately, and intend to be doing a lot more of that sort of thing in the future. I text a lot with other volunteers, too, as well as with HCN’s, especially my 15-year-old host sister. I’ve gotten really good at stickers and emoticons, how funny and expressive they can be. I don’t think anyone is really surprised that I’m pretty proficient, so that’s all good.

3. Teasing. This has been a hard one. Part of the problem is that the guys (it’s mostly guys) who are doing it are pretty funny, so it’s hard to be mad when I’m laughing. But it can be trying, and tiring, and sometimes, it can be a little mean. I think to some extent it’s like a rite of passage – they are trying to figure out who I am, how far they can go, how I differ from their parents, can I take it or not … Even though I am very sensitive, overly sensitive sometimes, I took it. I joked back. I traded insults. I made mock threats, and over time, it lessened, and now it’s more of a minor part of my conversations. What I hoped for seems to have happened – they know me as a person. Guess I passed the test, it was a tough one.

4. Socializing. I’m invited to some things, and to go along on some trips. Not all, and not always. I attribute this partly to age, and partly to a divergence in interests. For instance, I’m not a big camper/hiker, and everyone knows that about me. I like to go to museums and quirky restaurants. So, my time is spent with people who have similar interests – and happily, there are enough of them that it’s not really an issue, and happily some of them are HCN’s, too. I sometimes feel I’m missing out on things, but then when I force myself to do something that I really don’t enjoy, all I want is to be home. You can’t win sometimes!

5. Friendship. This has been surprising to me. All of the factors above have combined to make friendship be challenging, and all the more rewarding for it. One of my best friends here is the youngest volunteer in our group, but she is an old soul, and a smart, funny one, to boot. We share common interests and help each other out, and I can confide in her. Another good friend is a young guy with political views that are different from mine, and we enjoy debate a lot. There are others, quite a few actually, and I appreciate all of them. I especially appreciate those who see me as a person, and not a number. Some have felt that way from the start, and some have evolved.

So, in closing, I would say that I have learned and benefited more from this experience than I anticipated. I’ve learned a lot about differences, how to bridge them, when to acknowledge them, how to work around them. I expected I’d have to do that with HCN’s, but not with my own cohort. In that I was wrong, but now, after a year,I have to say that the adjustment and challenge have been positive and growth-enhancing for me. And I fervently hope that my younger friends feel the same, so when they go back home to the U.S., they are open to broader definitions of friendship, and less prone to ageism. If even a little of this happens, I’ll feel very good!

IDP Group 1-15

6 thoughts on “On Being a “50+” volunteer

  1. Susan MacBryde

    Another wonderful post, Sara. As a 50+ PCV in Armenia I find your comments so in line with what I any my 50+ cohorts are experiencing. In fact, we’ve begun a kind of manifesto for our PC administration on how to encourage more inclusiveness for older volunteers, just as more inclusiveness of persons of color and LGBTs is being encouraged. Thanks so much for your apt comments!

  2. Larry Kaplan

    Sara, nice post. As you and I have discussed ad nauseum before and during your PC service, ageism is a huge issue in the US. We live in a youth-oriented culture that stems from our national character of valuing the new and different. It’s why I think the toughest opponents that Hilary Clinton may face will be Rubio or Paul, who are young and attractive. Los Angeles, as the center of the entertainment industry, is ground zero for ageism in the US. And, here in the US, like racism and sexism, it is not overt but very subtle. I deal with it almost every day.

  3. sarah scholz

    Sarah, this was a very well written post and I can see how much time and thought you put into being careful but honest! I never realized how different you view your relationships with PCVs here than we do, and it’s enlightening to have some insight into life as an older PCV that I obviously won’t be able to see for myself or fully appreciate for years to come. I hope you know that we super love you and while I never expected a maternal figure, (mine’s still pretty darn involved despite the distance! ha!) I definitely consider you a good friend and always appreciate time spent with you. I’m sad about the isolation that you feel that isn’t attributed to differences in interest, and I’m glad you’re expressing that. I think a lot of us appreciate “hanging out” more than being drunk, and I dig quirky restaurants too! (though budget is an issue for me). So I hope we can all continue to tap into each other’s interests and get that much much needed quality time that I think every PCV probably craves. PS- I’m also impressed with how well it seems you’ve integrated with HCNs. I definitely have a hard time with that, as all the girls my age are married with a few kids already! Different strokes for different folks I suppose, but anyway I’m glad at least that part is less difficult than you anticipated! Hope to see you soon!!


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