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Older volunteers abroad

Fun, Friendship, and Fearless Travel

An interview with veteran volunteers, Joan and Carolyn

By Thom Brown | 17th January, 2024

On a volunteer trip to Madagascar in 2018, the seeds of friendship were sown. I interviewed Joan and Carolyn to learn more about their stories, how travel has benefited them in later life, and how they’re helping to inspire the next generation of volunteers and interns.

Joan, 71, has completed four Public Health Projects with us, while Carolyn, 62, has done seven projects, ranging from Teaching to Conservation.

They reunited in Cambodia, where they gave this interview. Here’s what we learned.

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What are your backgrounds?

Older volunteer in Madagascar

Joan: I’ve been a nurse since 1973 – that’s quite a while, isn’t it? I’ll let you do the maths on that one! Latterly, I’ve been working as a Health Visitor in the UK.

I retired for the first time about ten years ago and thought I’d go up to Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to do my tropical nursing diploma as a springboard for working abroad, using my public health experience.

But then, what do I do with it?

I heard through a friend about Projects Abroad and thought that’s just the sort of thing that would suit me. She told me the company looks after everybody so well, which has turned out to be true.

Carolyn (pictured): I’m from a totally different background. I’m a financial consultant and I don’t really plan to retire so I’m able to take some holidays to give back and be a citizen of the world. I’ve done it with other organizations but Projects Abroad really is my favorite organization for the very reason Joan said.

They take good care of you, but along with that, you can have Flexi trips. You start on any day of the week and stay as long as you want. That really works well for me.

How do you choose your projects?

Older Public Health intern

Joan (pictured): I chose Public Health because I work in public health in the UK, so along with my tropical nursing diploma, it’s fitted in pretty well to what I can give to the project and also learn myself. 

It’s one thing learning from a textbook, but it’s another being on the ground in a different country with a different culture. You can’t just walk in and impose and say “This is what it says in the textbook”.

You have to work with your project leaders and the people in the community.

Carolyn: I really like Law and Human Rights and Microfinance, but those aren’t always available so I pick according to what is available. I did Conservation in Nepal, but Teaching English is one I fall back on.

I choose based on the countries I want to visit and how much the flights are from my world (Canada).

How did you two meet?

Older volunteers in Vietnam

Joan: We met in Madagascar in 2018. We overlapped by a couple of weeks and hit it off as good friends and just stayed in touch.

There was absolutely nowhere to go in the evenings so we all stayed in the accommodation and played cards or just chatted.

We found that in life, although we’re on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, we just seemed to have quite a few things in common, which we found even more so when we got back together again here in Cambodia.

As we're both still working, we video call each other every few weeks to catch up on news. We also reminisce about our time in Madagascar, the people we met, the projects we worked on, and giggle about the fun we had.

But we’ve had longer to chat here in Cambodia and the number of times we’re both about to say the same thing or have the same view on something…

I mean, you’re never too old to make new friends. At least that’s our opinion.

Carolyn: There’s a charming story that I’d like to share. Joan went to her project and I went to mine and I came back on the same day with a little can of bug spray and when I walked upstairs, Joan said “I’ve got a present for you…” She’d got me the exact same thing!

So that was very charming. We always find things like that happening!

What project work are you doing in Cambodia?

Older intern health checkup in Cambodia

Joan: We help with government screening programs. We’re seeing people who haven’t got access to healthcare at all because of poverty. The majority would have been construction workers and factory workers. They will have never earned enough to save up and there would have been no pension scheme for them.

There's a huge amount of type 2 diabetes here in Cambodia, not helped by the mass marketing of soft drinks, which are cheaper to buy than water.

There seems to be lots of food available on food stalls. Apparently, it’s cheaper to buy deep-fried food from a food stall than it is to cook yourself. So again, that doesn’t help with diabetes.

We saw about 30 people this morning and 30 this afternoon. We have a local doctor or nurse with us and we have medications that we can safely give to them. The staff will give health advice and translate anything that the volunteers would like to suggest.

One hopes that some people turn their lives around and spread that message onto others.

Carolyn: I work at an NGO-sponsored school. I feel I am making progress as the head teacher there came up to me, put her hand on my arm, and said “Thank you for bringing your ideas here”.

I’m really trying to make sure the kids speak a good lot of English. I brought a lot of hands-on material. We teach through play, like the Steiner Waldorf concept of education

Today, I came across a really brilliant boy who was reading to me in English. It was a cartoon book, but he’s the only child who can actually read English. He was very, VERY smart.

The schools in Cambodia are not at all the same as they are back home in my world, but the kids have just as much – perhaps even more – verve and excitement.

Does travel have an age limit?

Public Health intern in Madagascar

Joan: [Laughing] No, no, no! Or it shouldn’t have – the insurance companies might disagree!

I travel because I’m interested in how people live. For instance, when we’re going to and from work in a little tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw), we’re going along the street past houses, office buildings, and people on the street selling their wares.

You get to see this with Projects Abroad, whereas perhaps if you go as a tourist on a tour, you just see museums and such. Projects Abroad gives you an opportunity to see how people really live, especially if you come for quite a few weeks. 

Carolyn: It feels like you get a better connection with the country when you go with Projects Abroad. You connect with the people a little bit more and can ask the staff whatever you like.

I would like to share with you one of the things that happened in Nepal – I had a delayed flight and I had to get a new flight which was fine, but it subsequently made me out of sequence and when I came back to Kathmandu airport, unfortunately, the airline, no matter how hard I tried, denied me boarding.

I called a member of the Projects Abroad staff and explained.  They did not seem to understand what that meant, but even so, they took me back to the house. The following day, I ended up going to the Canadian consulate and then the Air India office where I was able to purchase a new ticket.

Ultimately, Projects Abroad supported me the whole time, so I was very very relieved by that.

How important are the relationships you make on your travels?

Older friends travelling together

Joan: The relationships I’ve made on these trips have been great. I think I’ve stayed in touch with two or three people still from my first trip to the Philippines.

I was messaging a young Danish lad and said “I’m in Cambodia with Projects Abroad!” He said “Wow, that’s amazing! You’re still doing it!” We only keep in touch two or three times a year, but we’ve got very similar birthdays so we always wish each other a happy birthday.

These friendships are made easily because you’re living in the same place with the same – not difficulties – but the same situation, such as needing to handwash your clothes.

There have been other times that the younger folk, understandably, are perhaps a little homesick if it’s their first time away from home. When you get a bit older, I’m not saying you're not homesick, but you’re able to cope with that much more easily.

But I’m challenged by all things technical. I can look after the youngsters if they’re homesick and they look after me if I can’t get my iPhone to work. It’s that kind of teamwork and friendship that’s good fun and you can tease each other about things as well.

I remember arriving on one trip on a Thursday, not realizing that everyone went away at the weekends, and the youngsters said there was no way they were going away without me! I said “It’s fine, I’ll be fine”. They said “I’m sorry, you’re coming with us” and I was whisked away with people who I’m old enough to be their grandmother!

I don’t think any of us thought about the age difference because we were all volunteering together. I quite often keep in touch with the Projects Abroad staff as well.

Carolyn: Joan has really been a philanthropist and has helped a great deal in Madagascar. She’s supported quite a lot of students financially.

Joan: That’s right.  At work, we occasionally have some extra unwanted equipment.  I couldn't get back to Madagascar, but was able to send pictures of the things to the hospital and they were thrilled to be able to have it.

This shows how our connection to a place and our impact lasts long after we leave.

Do you have any words of advice for anyone nervous about volunteering abroad?

Volunteering in a Maasai village

Joan: If anyone wants to volunteer abroad, then I’d say don’t be nervous, just jump in! But jump in with Projects Abroad.

I’ve found every time I’ve been that the project staff are very supportive and not to be afraid to ask questions. They’ll give you an answer and support you. If you want to do something, they’ll arrange it. 

You’ll have good ideas to contribute, whether it’s something you’ve learned at school, your ability to play soccer, or anything you’ve got that you can join in with the community.

I’d say to anyone who’s thinking of contacting Projects Abroad not to hesitate in doing so. You can always ask Projects Abroad alumni for advice and information before signing up. 

Carolyn: Every time you volunteer abroad, you become a better, more well-rounded person and learn how to speak to all people more easily and without fear. It makes you really aware that there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

If Joan and I can do it, you can do it too.

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