An 80-year-old Peace Corps volunteer? No sweat

CHICAGO Thu Dec 19, 2013 10:43pm EST

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Vivian Davis walks five or six miles every day in her work as a an AIDS/HIV outreach worker for the Peace Corps in rural South Africa. "I just get around town visiting with people, or go to the Internet cafe," she says. "It keeps me healthy."

Her routine isn't out of the ordinary for a Peace Corps volunteer - until you consider that Davis recently celebrated her 80th birthday.

Most Americans think of the Peace Corps as a young person's gig, but 8 percent of volunteers are over 50, an all-time high. Although fewer than 1 percent are over 70, more than 4 percent are in their sixties; Davis is the only volunteer over 80.

It's no coincidence that more older people are signing up. In 2007 the Peace Corps began actively recruiting older adults through a program called Peace Corps' 50+. The program was expanded in 2011 through a partnership with AARP that promotes Peace Corps at AARP events and through its publications. "Older volunteers bring unique life skills and professional experience that help them make an instant impact in communities where they serve," says Shira Kramer, a Peace Corps spokeswoman. "And they often serve as mentors for younger volunteers."

The Peace Corps also recently expanded a program, called Peace Corps Response, that may appeal to older volunteers. The standard Peace Corps program involves a 27-month commitment, and volunteers have little control over the nature or location of their service. The Response program offers shorter service opportunities - typically, six months. Volunteers apply for specific job openings that match their skills and experience. The program had been open only to Peace Corps veterans, but now anyone with at least 10 years of work experience and the necessary language skills can sign up.

Older volunteers are an increasingly valuable resource as the country's age wave accelerates. In 2012, 24.4 percent of Americans over 65 (10.3 million people) did some kind of volunteer work, up from 22.7 percent in 2002, according to a new report based on Census Bureau data from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency that tracks trends and sponsors large volunteer initiatives such as Senior Corps and Americorps.

The report shows that religious organizations receive - by far - the greatest share of volunteer help, followed by social service organizations and schools.

And the benefits are two-way: A growing body of research points to the physical and mental health benefits of volunteering for older people, including reduced dependent living, lower rates of depression and increased longevity.

Davis's interest in the Peace Corps stemmed from her career in healthcare. She had been a healthcare administrator at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and later worked at a San Francisco hospital during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

She later retired to Austin, Texas, and noticed a Peace Corps recruitment sign while volunteering at a health clinic. The idea of living abroad didn't scare her, since her former husband - she has been divorced since 1976 - served in the Air Force and the couple moved around the world frequently.

"I just thought it would be another adventure in my life," she told me by phone from South Africa. "There I was in Texas, and I didn't know many people there - and the only thing I was doing was going to church. I looked at the poster and thought, 'I think I can do that.'"

Davis was sent to serve in Mpumalanga province, 50 miles north of Pretoria. At 78, she was one the oldest people to serve since the Peace Corps was signed into existence in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy.

South Africa is among the countries hit hardest by AIDS. In 2009, 17.8 percent of the population was infected - the fourth-highest rate in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook. Davis focuses on HIV/AIDs outreach with the elderly and working with orphaned children who have lost their parents to AIDS.

She spends her time in schools, making house visits and visiting a community center for seniors. "I'm mainly there to disseminate information. People already know a lot about this - it's not the hush-hush topic that it used to be."

Davis will wrap up her Peace Corps service early next year. In March she will return to Austin, where she has three adult children, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She expects to return to her volunteer work at an Austin hospital, and in a school reading program.

RESOURCES

Older adults interested in volunteering can find a wealth of resources online, including:

- The Peace Corps (1.usa.gov/1cCTGSn) and Peace Corps Response (1.usa.gov/19AxdIv.)

- Senior Corps (1.usa.gov/1jm86za)

- AARP (bit.ly/19AxACF)

- Encore.org (bit.ly/18BgrKu)

For more from Mark Miller, see link.reuters.com/qyk97s

(Removes reference in paragraph 12 to Davis as the oldest person ever to have served in Peace Corps)

(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here. Editing by Douglas Royalty)

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