Peace Corps volunteer Emily Dewhirst, photo provided by Peace Corps


The Pope recently told a cadre of elderly Romans that it’s “beautiful to be old” and that they still have much to offer society regardless of their limitations.

The 85-year-old pontiff said he knows well the difficulties that come with age, according to an Associated Press report. He started using a cane intermittently earlier this year. But his health remains hearty and his agenda full.Last Sunday, the dynamic 79-year-old author and historian David McCullough  was profiled in a terrific 60 Minutes segment, and he kibitzed with the high-spirited 96-year-old Olivia de Havilland. The scene sparkled.

(Click here to go to my Forbes column)

And on Tuesday, Emily Dewhirst, the oldest Peace Corps volunteer in service, turned 83. Dewhirst of Knoxville, Tenn. is currently serving her third assignment with Peace Corps as a Peace Corps Response volunteer in Moldova.

To learn more about the 80-something movement, I flew from Washington, DC to San Diego, where I have spent the last few days at the 65th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, along with 3,600 leading researchers and educators in the field of aging, who are all charting new frontiers.

Aging with grace and vitality is the heart of  it all.

I admit this conference is a somewhat overwhelming for a layperson. As a MetLife Foundation Journalist in Aging Fellow, I was invited to be part of the discussion, and it has left me feeling hopeful about my own advancing years.

Ok. I’m a baby at 52, but I like where this research is going.

The sheer number of sessions and topics presented here makes your head spin. Trust me, though, when I say, it was thought-provoking to hear Elizabeth Isele, co-founder of Senior Entrepreneurship Works, talk about the role senior entrepreneurs can play in our economy to create jobs, and what needs to change policy-wise to encourage this engagement.

(More: Are Senior Start-Ups the Answer?)

Susan Reinhard, director of AARP Public Policy Institute, and Peggye Dilworth-Anderson, a co-director of The University of North Carolina Institute on Aging, delved into the issues surrounding family caregivers who are performing tasks with inadequate training and support.

Issues of memory loss and the importance of keeping the brain muscles engaged and strong were part of the dialogue. Toni Miles, Director of the Institute on Gerontology at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, explained: “Our brains are composed of muscle fiber. And we all know that muscles improve with use.”  (For more: read this post at Psychology Today.)

What’s it like to work at 80?

With age on my brain, I decided to reach out to an 80-something role model for some thoughts on how it feels to be engaged in work post-80. Sure, I could have called the Pope, I suppose, but it was the Peace Corps’ Dewhirst’s adventurous spirit that appeals to me–and I had better shot at hearing back from her.

The age-friendlyPeace Corps

To me, the Peace Corps has always stood out as a very groovy thing to have on your resume. But it seemed like a young person’s game–something to do right out of college. That’s simply not the case these days, midcareer folks and retirees like Dewhirst are increasingly taking up the quest.

Before I contacted her, though, I had to show my geographic ignorance. Where exactly is she? To the globe, I go.

Moldova, officially the Republic of Moldova is a landlocked nation in Eastern Europe located between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north, east, and south.

It sounds pretty exotic to me, so I asked a public affairs specialist at the Peace Corps for details. Apparently, more than 1,080 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Moldova since 1993 and right now, there about 120 volunteers  there working in the areas of English education, health, business development, and community development. The volunteers, like Dewhirst are trained and work in Romanian and Russian.

Here’s my e-mail conversation with Dewhirst.

Kerry: What motivates you to keep volunteering

Dewhirst For the answer, you had to be with me Friday when I taught at the orphanage in a small town in Moldova. There were fifteen adorable children, starved for love and attention, who endure a brutal world of often uncaring people.  The 5th graders were full of fun and joy that Friday and wishing my university girls and I would stay forever.  My heart was in my throat all the time we taught there. Their need is so apparent, so urgent.  So I am here.

Kerry: Is there an advantage to your age?

Dewhirst: The advantage of being older certainly includes the fact that age is revered in the countries where I have worked. People look at me and appreciate the expertise and experience I bring. They are more inclined to believe I can share meaningful ways of doing things.

Kerry: When did you get involved with the Peace Corps?

Dewhirst: I took my first Peace Corps assignment in Kazakhstan at the age of 63, when I served for two years teaching English and working with English teachers to improve their skills. At age 81, I served in Armenia for seven months as part of Peace Corps Response, where I developed and taught a series of English classes that were used in my village’s schools and replicated throughout Armenia at other Peace Corps posts. In October of this year, I headed to Moldova for my second Peace Corps Response assignment, where I will focus on improving English education for teachers and students.

Kerry: What is Peace Corps Response?

Dewhirst: It’s a program that provides opportunities for qualified Americans to undertake short-term, high-impact assignments in various sectors around the world. Peace Corps Responseassignments last between three months and one year with an opportunity to extend based on program needs.

It’s uniquely suited to me. I can commit for a shorter time, and I am able to use my talents where they are needed and wanted.

Kerry: Do you recommend this kind of work to your peers?

Dewhirst: No matter what your age, I encourage anyone who wants to commit to making a difference in the lives of others to apply for the Peace Corps. If you’re really interested in other people, learning from them, then this is the job for you. What we bring to the lives of others is our creativity, our openness and our energy.

The Nitty-Gritty:

  • Currently, more than 7% of Peace Corps Volunteers are over the age of 50 and are serving in 61 posts worldwide.
  • Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps by executive order on March 1, 1961, more than 210,000 Americans have served in 139 host countries.
  • Today, 8,073 volunteers are working with local communities in 76 host countries in agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health and youth in development. Peace Corps volunteers must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age.

 No pay per se

While Peace Corps Volunteers do not get paid a salary, Peace Corps provides volunteers with a living allowance covering housing, food, and incidentals. It also provides complete dental and medical care during service, including shots, vaccinations, and medicines. And, of course, it covers the cost of transportation to and from the country of service.

To be honest, I am doubtful that I will ever head to exotic lands like Moldova to work, but as I leave San Diego today, I  wonder, what kind of job I will I be doing at 80? How about you? 


Follow me on Twitter, @KerryHannon I’m the author of Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … And Pays the Bills (John Wiley & Sons), available here Check out my column at AARP. My weekly column  at PBS’s is here.

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