Tag Archives: Pandemic

Turn Down Your Stress

The pandemic grinds on. The election is approaching. Wildfires are blazing. And now Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died.

I’m old enough to remember the tumult of 1968 and the Watergate years, but these past several months have been an even bigger challenge to our individual and collective sanity.

On a Zoom call recently, some friends decribed how they’ve been coping with the unrelenting stress, from going on hikes to watching webcams of wild bears. Others have been binge-watching Netflix, baking bread or learning hobbies. Many are struggling.

One way I’ve been reducing stress is by walking six miles daily.

 

I’ve found relief in exercising, reading and spending time with our family, as well as in something I hadn’t viewed previously as a way to relieve anxiety: my volunteering.

I assist North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova, transport donations for a food bank, write letters to potential voters and provide editorial or financial assistance to causes I support. Recently I’ve also been helping to launch a program for older volunteers to assist Durham community groups, one of which I’m helping myself.

Champa joined me in delivering a food donation from a local grocery store to this Durham food pantry.

 

I didn’t pursue these activities so as to ease my own sense of unease and despair during a pandemic. But that’s what they’ve ended up doing for me.

As I experienced in the Peace Corps a few years ago, serving others shifts your attention from yourself. It reminds you how lucky you are. It connects you to the wider community and gives meaning to your life.

For me, the pandemic has also highlighted how volunteering can reduce stress, as scientists have confirmed. A 2015 study by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine found that adults who helped others reported higher levels of positive emotion. “Prosocial behavior moderated the effects of stress on positive affect, negative affect, and overall mental health,” they reported.

Michael Poulin, a University of Buffalo researcher, described it this way: ”When you are thinking about helping other people you’re simply not thinking as much about yourself and your problems … In essence it’s a kind of distraction, but a more satisfying distraction than surfing the Web or binge-watching House of Cards.”

Religious faiths tell us the same thing, that giving enriches the giver.

Paige Greenwood, a neuroscience doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, published this article after participating in a free online workshop I taught about writing op-eds.

 

Don’t get me wrong: I still shudder at the pandemic’s rising death toll and sputter at what I see on the news. I know how important passion can be to spurring political action.

I also recognize that my own modest efforts come from a place of privilege and pale in comparison to those of many other volunteers, not to mention those who’ve been battling the pandemic and saving lives in other ways. While West Coast fire fighters have fighting huge blazes, I have been safe at home, with my wife, free to volunteer. Others face stresses far bigger than mine.

My Peace Corps friend Jim Fletcher and I spoke at this orientation program for UNC dental students preparing to visit Moldova.

 

Still, our collective anxiety is real, and I have a suggestion for those feeling overwhelmed as the campaign enters its final stretch. If they are spending hours sharing angry memes on Facebook or Twitter with like-minded friends, ratcheting up their own emotions, they might want to turn off their smartphones and, instead, help a neighbor or organization in need. (Activate Good is a great place to find opportunities here in the Triangle.)

They may find, as I have, that helping others during stress-filled times is a good way to renew their own equilibrium and strength. Based on what we’ve seen so far this year, we’re all going to need it.

The Older Evacuees

I was friends with Karen Jean (KJ) Hunt before we both left Durham to serve in the Peace Corps. Champa and I were lucky enough to serve before the pandemic. KJ was in Ethiopia (above, with some of her students in Kotu) when the Peace Corps evacuated all of its volunteers worldwide for the first time ever. In a new article for Next Avenue, I describe how the evacuation affected KJ and other older volunteers and what to expect in the months ahead.

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Read the article.

Humbled by the Pandemic

Friends from Nepal and Moldova have been contacting us to check on how we’re doing as the pandemic spins out of control in the United States. 

I went to those two countries as a Peace Corps Volunteer to provide training and insight from an American. Now they and others look at us and see crowds defying public health guidelines in bars, on beaches and elsewhere, and a death toll topping 140,000. It’s humbling.

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Unlike the majority of developed countries that responded to the pandemic with discipline and a respect for science, the United States has acted foolishly and incompetently. Why should anyone take us seriously again?

Millions of Americans have behaved responsibly, even heroically. Doctors, nurses and other front-line workers have been risking their lives to help others. Many teachers will soon return to their classrooms. Others are continuing to sell food, collect trash and perform other essential tasks, often for low wages. Neighbors are helping each other.

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Medical center in Chişinǎu, Moldova.

Yet the situation is worsening, and it’s our own fault. Especially here in the South, many governors rushed to reopen their states before it was safe. They defied health experts who correctly warned what would happen. N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper has been among the exceptions, largely resisting pressure to reopen too quickly.

Paul Krugman of The New York Times says we shouldn’t blame this failure on our American culture being “too libertarian, too distrustful of government, too unwilling to accept even slight inconveniences to protect others.” The bigger factor, he says, has been President Trump denying the pandemic’s seriousness. His decision to “trade deaths for jobs and political gain” led many local leaders and others to act irresponsibly.

Both factors, culture and politics, have surely played a role, and health officials could have done a better job of communicating messages and winning public trust. In any case, here we are. I know Champa and I have been fortunate to ride out the crisis in a comfortable home but I am angry about how many of my fellow Americans are now suffering, especially people of color. Our IMG_4366hospitals are overwhelmed. Businesses keep closing. This didn’t have to happen.

I keep thinking back to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, which I visited just before the pandemic spread out of control. Anne and her family remained quiet in an attic for more than two years before the Nazis discovered them. Here in America, by contrast, millions of people have been unable to last a few months before they insisted on partying. Even now, they reject something as simple as wearing a mask. 

One of the three Peace Corps goals is to “promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” It’s ironic our country had to evacuate its Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide just when it needed more than ever to be learning from others.

[Top photo: The hospital entrance in Ilam, Nepal, my first post as a Peace Corps Volunteer.]

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One reviewer calls it “a love story and adventure book all in one. A truly inspirational tale.” Another says “it shows how adventure can give new meaning to our lives and make them richer.” Visit the book website for Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.

Grounded

Older folks who love to travel have been having a tough time since the pandemic started.

Some have been scrambling to deal with canceled airline tickets, visa extensions and medical insurance. Others have expired passports and are waiting with 1.7 million other Americans for the State Department to work through a backlog of renewals. Still others are waiting for their stimulus payments or wondering whether the countries they hope to visit will even allow them to enter. 

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From one of the Facebook groups

All know they are at higher risk for coronavirus because of their age and any complicating conditions.

More than 413,000 retired workers receive Social Security benefits abroad, according to one study. That’s an imperfect marker that includes retirees who move abroad to be with family and for other reasons, but it’s big nonetheless. As I learned during our own “not exactly retired” adventure, there are a lot more seniors on the road than you might guess by counting R.V.s with bumper stickers saying they’re spending their kids’ inheritance.

Two of my favorite bloggers, the Senior Nomads Debbie and Michael Campbell, have spent the past seven years staying in more than 250 Airbnbs in 85 countries. Now their foreign travels have been curtailed. 

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Debbie and Michael recently started a Facebook group for like-minded seniors. The response amazed me. I couldn’t believe how many older people had similar stories to share. Some sold their homes to travel full-time, or to live abroad for all or part of the year in places like Costa Rica, Portugal or Malaysia. Others have been using long-term Airbnbs or other foreign rentals. Almost all have seen their plans disrupted.

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I’ve been seeing the same thing on other Facebook groups such as an Earth Vagabonds group for “retired budget travelers” and a 50+ hikers of the world group.

Recent posts on these sites have described retirees “sheltering in place” from Taiwan to Nicaragua. They’ve been locked down in Cyprus, stranded in Chile and cooped up in Croatia. They’ve had cooking classes canceled in Italy and insects swarming in Costa Rica, or are happily riding out the pandemic in Mexico or the Philippines.

Others feel stuck in America, “bored out of my mind” as one person wrote. Another said: “We are close to retirement and this has significantly recalibrated our thinking about the future.” And another: ““My entire future life has been radically altered.”

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On the “Senior Nomads” Facebook page, people have amused each other by posting photos of where they were one year ago. They’re also guessing the locations of each other’s travel photos, including one I posted of Champa beside a beautiful church in Armenia, above. (Yes, someone identified it.)

At a moment when the pandemic continues to spread and our country is confronting its ugly history of racism and police violence, I hasten to put all of this in perspective. The problems I’m discussing do not compare with being on a ventilator or having a policeman’s knee on your throat. Even senior travelers with modest means — which describes many of them — are still privileged relative to many other people.

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I do hope they will be able to return to the road before long, especially given their medical vulnerability and shorter time horizons. Certainly no industry needs their business more than airlines, hotels and restaurants.

As for Champa and me, we will continue spending the pandemic at home until we consider it safe to travel again. We don’t know when that will be. Maybe soon. Probably not. We have our suitcases ready.

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Top photo: We visited Ghent, Belgium, during our last trip before the pandemic.

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One reviewer calls it “a love story and adventure book all in one. A truly inspirational tale.” Another says “it shows how adventure can give new meaning to our lives and make them richer.” Visit the book website for Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.

Free Walking Tours

I wrote this article after Champa and I returned home from Europe in March, just before the coronavirus made such travel impossible. It felt inappropriate to publish it then. A new article in The Washington Post prompts me to share it now, with hope for better times.

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Champa and I were accompanied on our recent European trip by Laura, Camille, Adrien and Tim. They were our guides on free walking tours, a travel idea we hope to use again after the current crisis passes. Perhaps you can use it then, too.

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Laura, Bruges

Traditionally, you had to buy an advance ticket for a walking tour of a city, but several years ago some companies began switching to a “pay what you like” model. The concept spread, even to Moldova, where we served in the Peace Corps. 

The two of us prefer this model because the guides are motivated to provide a great experience every time. Their tips depend on it and their companies monitor their online reviews.

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Camille, Ghent

All of our guides on free walking tours have been enthusiastic local experts who provided a 2-3 hour blend of history, architecture, culture and humor.

In Bruges, Belgium, for example, Laura explained how the picturesque Flemish city became a center of European commerce, declined and then reemerged as a cultural hub. She described its majestic belfry and churches and shared stories about how it came to possess both a Michaelangelo statue and swan-filled ponds. Laura spent several years in Australia, so her narration had an unexpected accent.

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Adrien, Brussels

In Ghent, our guide was Camille, whose description of that city’s historic competition with Bruges provided an interesting counterpoint. Camille took us to several buildings that served powerful guilds and to others that beckoned sailors seeking prostitutes. We also learned the history of Belgium’s famous beer, potato fries and other foods.

Our guide in Brussels, Adrien, expanded the food conversation to include waffles and chocolates. He pointed out architecural oddities in its magnificent Grand Place and suggested local beers for us to sample when we stopped at a bar halfway through our tour. IMG_4150Like other guides, he also addressed some difficult topics. Standing in front of a statue of King Leopold II, he described how millions of Africans died under brutal Belgian rule.

In Amsterdam, our guide, Tim, told another story of colonial oppression, this one about Dutch rule in Indonesia. He also brought us to a former Jewish neighborhood and to the Anne Frank House to consider what happened to Amsterdam’s Jews under German occupation. Mostly, though, Tim kept us smiling as he riffed on everything from Dutch cheeses to the maintenance of canals. When he told us he also works as a stand-up comedian, we weren’t surprised.

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Tim, Amsterdam

During our Peace Corps service, we took free walking tours in several East European cities, such as with the guide you see below from Sofia, Bulgaria. Her excellent tour ranged from the architecture of a local mosque to the city’s many symbols of recent Communist rule.

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All of our guides combined light material with more serious sights. As Adrien said in Brussels, “I don’t want you to get churched out.” We found all the tours just right in length. We haven’t had a bad experience yet. Needless to say, we tipped all of the guides and posted favorable reviews. Hennessey, who showed us around Dublin during an earlier trip, told us his mother checked his reviews regularly.

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Hennessey, Dublin

Free walking tours can also help you find a good hotel or Airbnb, as I learned from one of my favorite blogs, The Senior Nomads. If you’re looking online for a place to stay, check where the walking tour originates, then search near there. You’ll end up close to top attractions instead of in a distant neighborhood.

Champa and I know how fortunate we are to have returned safely at a time when the coronavirus is claiming an enormous physical and economic toll. People around the world are struggling, and those on the front lines are risking their lives to help us. We are grateful to all of them.

As we isolate at home, we’re dreaming of the day when we can again explore a new city with a good walk.