“Just as the pandemic has upended the lives of students and workers, it is derailing the plans of many retirees,” Susan Garland writes in today’s New York Times. “More than six months into the pandemic, many retirees, after what some described as a period of fear and hopelessness, are finding ways to adapt.”
Susan’s excellent article about how active retirees are responding to the pandemic features Champa and me, along with OLLI at Duke’s Chris McLeod and others. Thanks to Susan and to Jeremy Lange for the great photo. Here’s the opening section, about the two of us:
David Jarmul and his wife, Champa, long envisioned what their retirement would look like. After returning from a two-year Peace Corps stint in Moldova in 2018, the couple, both 67, planned extensive travel, including trips to the Baltics, West Africa and Sri Lanka.
“Travel is our passion — it’s what we love to do,” said Mr. Jarmul, who retired in 2015 as head of news and communications for Duke University.
For now, the two are living a Covid-19 retirement — packed with volunteer and social pursuits but reconfigured for a social distancing world. Mr. Jarmul is delivering groceries to a local food pantry and engaging in a get-out-the-vote letter-writing campaign. And the two are caring for their 15-month-old grandson — playing hide-and-seek and reading books — while their son and daughter-in-law work from home and supervise the online classes of two older sons.
“We are happy to spend the time with him. It’s helpful for our son and daughter-in-law,” said Mr. Jarmul, author of Not Exactly Retired, a book about the couple’s Moldova experience.
As for his retirement dreams, Mr. Jarmul considers himself fortunate compared to those with true hardship. “Despairing is not a great solution,” he said. “We are trying deliberately to fill our lives with activities that give us meaning — remaining connected to our friends and being good members of the community.”
Our society celebrates “coming of age” novels, from Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye. Newer books fit into this genre, too, from The Fault in Our Stars to blockbuster series like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.
But how many novels can you name whose central characters are retired or aging?
You might be able to think of some after awhile if you’re a dedicated reader ike me. But they are not so obvious and, as best I can tell, not recognized as a genre even though more than 46 million Americans are now over the age of 65, a total projected to more than double by 2060. I looked online and found lists here, here, here and here, all filled with examples of great books with older characters, but they still don’t feel like a “thing” to me.
The recent death of Philip Roth got me thinking about this. (Another great writer, Tom Wolfe, also died. It was a bad week.) Roth famously explored the challenges of older age. When I learned of his passing, I had just finished The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a powerful story about an African American teenager who sees her friend killed by police. I loved her book but it’s worth noting its central character was a young person, just as in The Goldfinch and some of the other books I’ve read while serving in the Peace Corps.
My list just topped 100 and, out of curiousity, I went back to see how many of the novels had older protagonists. There were a few, such as Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. But most of the books dealing with older age were nonfiction, such as two good ones I read recently: Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginnner’s Guide, about his experience with Parkinson’s Disease, and Marc Freedman’s Prime Time, about people creating new careers and identities after leaving the conventional work force. Many nonfiction books for older readers focus on financial planning and other practical questions. Those books are often suggested even when you search online for fiction about older people, as shown below.
The percentage of American adults who read books has remained relatively unchanged in the past few years, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The median American reads four books a year. Print books continue to be more popular than audiobooks or e-books, which are more popular among younger readers, who read slightly more books than older Americans.
Younger adults are more likely to read for work or school while adults of all ages are equally likely to read for pleasure or to keep up with current events. In other words, the readers are still there, even as independent bookstores struggle to survive. So why aren’t more novelists focusing on “the coming of older age” — and why aren’t these books treasured as a genre in the same way we celebrate stories about people at the other end of the age span?
Sure, there are classics such as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and more recent characters such as Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman or John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But their ubiquity or cultural impact are small compared to, say, Harry Potter. (I don’t think Disney World is considering a thrill ride yet about Medicare, with parts A, B, C and D.)
I wish more great novels featured characters my age. I don’t understand why they don’t. Obviously, the books assigned in our high schools are more likely to feature characters and stories of interest to younger readers. But how about for the majority of readers who are older than that — people like me? Why don’t our bookstores have shelves devoted to these audiences on topics other than how to apply for Social Security or deal with dementia?
Maybe it has to do with the economics of the book industry, but books don’t sell advertising like television shows, which want younger viewers to buy their beer and cars. Maybe older characters are harder to fit into genre fiction, like mysteries or romance novels. Maybe they’re not taken seriously by younger Americans, a thought that occurred to me this past week while reading Dan Lyon’s Disrupted, his hilarious but unsettling account of working at a startup company in his mid-50s.
Maybe it’s something else. I guess I’m too old to figure it out myself.
Champa and I are among the people featured in a new article from journalist Kim Painter about how Americans are navigating the second half of their lives. There are many possible transitions, she writes, but the “big one” is usually leaving one’s life’s work for whatever comes next. Painter also interviewed my sister Nancy Collamer. Her article for Vested appears below and is online here.
We’re celebrating two anniversaries this month: two years since I left my job at Duke and one year since Champa and I arrived in Moldova to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers.
As a new book makes clear, the “not exactly retired” path we’ve charted for ourselves is not exactly for everyone. Many people want to be retired in a traditional sense — playing golf, gardening or relaxing in other ways. Others seek to remain connected to their previous workplace or profession, or to search for new meaning in their life. Some end up watching too much television or getting depressed.
In Too Young to Be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as You Age, sociologist Nancy K. Schlossberg explores the different paths people follow. She describes the six most common routes as “continuers,” “adventurers,” easy gliders,” “involved spectators,” “searchers” and “retreaters.”
Since we made the leap, traveling across the United States and Nepal and then joining the Peace Corps, Champa and I have mostly been “adventurers.” Schlossberg describes this route as “an opportunity to pursue an unrealized dream or try something new.” In my case, there’s also been an element of “continuer,” since I’ve remained active in communications, albeit in a very different way from when I was running a university communications office.
Even though I was more than ready for the transition, it took time to adjust to my new life, just as my sister Nancy had warned me. (She is the author of Second-Act Careers, which I recommend highly.) I had trouble letting go of my professional identity, which I continued to highlight on my LinkedIn profile for several months. Only later did I change it to emphasize my role as a blogger and, later, as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Taking extended trips across the United States and Nepal helped loosen my grip. Serving in the Peace Corps then provided me with a new identity and a well-established mission and structure to serve others.
In one year, though, I will finish Peace Corps and again face the challenge of defining “who am I?” for both myself and others who know me, together with Champa. I will also need to reaffirm my identities within my family and my community back home. It’s a process that will probably never end.
Champa and I know how lucky we are to have these opportunities, even though we really miss our family and are counting the minutes until we see them in a few weeks for a brief vacation.
Schlossberg’s book reminds me how other members of my generation will have their own retirement journeys, which may be very different from our own yet equally valid and compelling. All of us entering this phase of our lives share the challenge of finding the right blend of identity, relationships and purpose to fit our circumstances.
With two years and many miles now behind us, I now recognize our most important choice so far to have been choice itself, to act instead of drifting. What we actually chose is not everyone’s cup of tea (or even Moldovan wine), to be sure, but it’s worked for us. We all face life transitions sooner or later and can either resist or embrace them, however much our destinations and routes may diverge.
I welcome comments about your own dreams and journey, regardless of your age.
When Tucson residents Brent and Deeporn Beardsley walked away in their 60s from long-time jobs at IBM to join the Peace Corps, they thought they were saying goodbye to software development projects.
Instead, they ended up applying their programming and project development skills to assist schools across the Republic of Moldova. As they now wrap up their two years as volunteers in the east European nation, their free class-scheduling program is spreading rapidly with the active support of the country’s education ministry.
Class scheduling is much more complicated in Moldova than in the United States, where students generally take courses every day for a semester or a year — English first period, biology second period and so forth. In Moldova, a student may take six hours weekly of the local language, Romanian, four of math and two of English. Some teachers only work on certain days. Others split their time among two or more schools. Still others leave school unexpectedly for personal reasons. Some teachers have their own classrooms; others move around.
“It’s a nightmare to juggle everything,” says Dee, who discovered the problem during her first few days as an English teacher in the small Moldovan city of Calarasi. Her own schedule kept changing along with everyone else’s. School officials could use existing software to develop new schedules, but they had to pay high fees to print each version — this in Europe’s poorest country.
After discussing the problem with Dee’s colleagues, Brent began developing a new class-scheduling system with the coding language Java, eventually writing more than 20,000 lines of code. He completed a prototype within three months. The program worked so well that neighboring schools installed it as well. Dee and Brent then reached out to Peace Corps education volunteers throughout Moldova, many of whose schools also adopted the software, which Brent and Dee kept refining.
A local Peace Corps official, Eugenia Iurco, brought the program to the attention of friends working in Moldova’s education ministry. One of them, senior consultant Inga Cruciescu, recognized the program’s potential to solve a long-standing national problem without incurring new costs. She embraced it and began teaching regional workshops with Brent and Dee, training administrators how to install and use the latest version of the program.
“The program really simplifies the process of planning lessons and improves the quality of education,” Cruciescu says. “”We’ve piloted it in 150 schools and plan to take it to the national level next year.”
Ionela Titirez of the U.S. Agency for International Development got behind the effort, too, providing transportation and refreshments for the workshops and arranging to translate the user’s guide and other materials into both Romanian and Moldova’s other main language, Russian. A small grant from the Peace Corps Partnership Program covered some of the project’s other costs. Brent’s work partners — Victor Ambroci, Valeria Ambroci and Evgheny Tinonov — assisted as well.
“Brent and Dee have done tremendous work,” Cruciescu says. “It’s been amazing to observe how much effort and personal time they’ve dedicated. At first glance you might have expected a language or age barrier, but both of them were very flexible and open. We’ve had an impressive collaboration.”
While working on the project, Brent also helped Stacy Chong, 49, a Peace Corps small enterprise volunteer working to assist Moldova’s fashion industry.
“Brent was an integral part of our project to develop Moldova’s very first textile library,” says Chong, who recently completed her service and began attending graduate school in Boston. “He built the database that enabled us to store information about all of our swatches and books. That enabled us to create an online textile library to assist Moldova’s fashion industry, which is growing rapidly and employs more than 20,000 women. Brent did all of this for no other reason than to help us.”
Both projects have been “totally different” from Brent’s previous work in a corporate setting back home. “I used to enjoy working with our customers and, of course the company might give me promotions or financial rewards. Here I feel like I’m really making a difference in people’s lives.”
“We’re not living in poverty as Peace Corps volunteers, but we’re certainly not living as multimillionaires. We’re getting a heck of a lot more than money,” agrees Dee, who grew up in Bangkok before moving to the United States decades ago.