Friday Oct 27th, 2017


When Nancy Semkin began planning her early retirement from the corporate sector in 2009, she knew the next phase of her life was going to look markedly different. Semkin, who lives in Toronto, had enjoyed a long, fulfilling career as a director of leadership development in human resources at RBC.

"I have no regrets," says Semkin. "But there was a further need I knew was not being met."

For years, Semkin had pictured herself immersed in humanitarian work. With family obligations and bills to pay, however, the circumstances were never right. As she got older, that changed. Plus, "I had come to the time in my life when I wanted to take on a different kind of challenge," Semkin says. "I'd had the dream to do humanitarian work for a long time and felt compelled to act when the circumstances were finally right."

Semkin completed some college courses in international development and began searching for a suitable fit. "I knew I had transferable skills," she says. At a recruiting night hosted by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, she learned the extent to which organizations like this one need non-medical people – including logisticians, financial experts and, happily, human resources specialists.

To date, Semkin, now 67, has been on international staff development missions for MSF in a range of countries that include South Africa, Mozambique, South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. "I've made connections with the most beautiful people from all over the world," she says.

What brings her joy? "Their desire and eagerness to learn, and my having the skills to be able to help with that learning."

What pulls people toward humanitarian work in the second half of life? After all, working in crisis situations, often under extreme conditions, is no pleasure cruise. Certainly there's acute need, whether it's in refugee camps, war-torn villages or disaster areas abroad, or in communities stricken with poverty or devastated by forest fires here at home. But the days are long and exhausting and don't always include running water and electricity, let alone air-conditioning or a hot bath.

Yet a remarkable amount of humanitarian aid is delivered by older people. Many of them, like Semkin, never performed this kind of work until their 50s or 60s. At MSF, the average age of an international aid worker is 41, and it's not unusual for workers to be seniors. "That might surprise people," says Owen Campbell, MSF Canada's field human resources manager. "We don't have any top age limit. We look for people who have recent, relevant work experience, and of course, if someone has a lifetime of experience, that's taken into consideration."

Campbell notes that older people tend to have fewer competing commitments and more time to give. They're retired or semi-retired, their families are grown, and their elderly parents have long since passed away. Statistics Canada reports that seniors who volunteer for charitable causes give much more time than any other age group; in fact, they contribute nearly twice as many hours as adults under 35.

These men and women may be better positioned financially as well, especially if they've risen in their careers and are no longer paying off their house or their kids' university fees. "I had a pension, and my mortgage was done, so I didn't have to worry about looking for work that paid the bills," Semkin says. Although she, like other MSF workers, receives a monthly stipend (not all humanitarian work is volunteer work), it certainly doesn't compare to a corporate executive's salary.

But the motivation to do hands-on humanitarian work, especially when there are many other, easier options for making a charitable contribution to society, often goes beyond pragmatic matters of spare time and financial stability. German-born American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term "generativity" to describe the wish to contribute as a legacy for younger generations.

"I think this desire to give back comes from a basic sense of caring for people in a much deeper and richer way the older you get, and treasuring life much more," says Toronto leadership consultant Julia Moulden, author of three books about emerging trends, including Ripe: Rich, Rewarding Work After 50. "It totally makes sense to me that older people want to do more of this."

"When you're helping out somebody, it's sort of paying it forward," remarks Bob Fisher of Fredericton, N.B. "There have been people who have helped you in the past, so you just pass it along." Fisher, 71, volunteers with his local branch of Habitat for Humanity Canada. He's helped to construct multiple homes for families in need in the Fredericton area. He's also been on an overseas build in Zambia. Last year, his team organized a build with members of New Brunswick's Tobique First Nation. "It makes me feel good," he says simply.

Doing humanitarian work isn't a fit for everybody, and experts stress that anyone considering it should know what they're getting themselves into. Speak with other field workers, especially those close to your age, explore agency websites and read first-person accounts of what's involved. "We get excited about doing things, but there are real world implications," Moulden says. The work might come with harsh conditions or long weeks away from home. "What's your health like? Have you got dependents? You need to consider all of that."

For many people, too, energy levels flag with age. "The working hours are very long, and often for six days a week," says Semkin. "The needs and the pace of the work are relentless." She copes by accepting shorter missions – four months is her maximum. As for Fisher, he's convinced that his many hours of installing drywall, insulation, ceiling tile and flooring are good for his health. "I probably get more exercise working with Habitat for Humanity than I'd get on my own. It keeps both my mind and my body active." A retired research scientist who worked for the Canadian Forest Service, Fisher also finds it satisfying to solve logistical problems on the building site.

That's something else unique to older humanitarian workers: executive-level skills that have been finely honed over many years. These "senior superpowers" can be in high demand at aid agencies. "A lot of our international field workers are in a coordinating role," says Campbell. "People with prior management experience tend to be better prepared, which correlates with people who have had longer careers with higher levels of responsibility."

David Meadows, 69, agrees. "Over the years, you gain an ability to foresee and plan things," he says. While Meadows was still working as a lawyer in Halifax, he volunteered for local causes such as the community theatre and his school alumni association. But his yearning to provide humanitarian aid abroad became stronger as he neared the end of his career in 2008. A couple months after retirement, Meadows was in El Salvador, helping to construct houses. After participating in several Habitat Global Village trips in different countries, he now leads trips. "Perhaps if I were younger, I would not have had the experience for the planning and organization."

Regardless of age, the rewards of doing humanitarian work can be deeply affecting. "You get to know the people. You really see the impact of what you've done," says Meadows.

As for Semkin, she swears the experience has made her a better person. "I think a lot of people would say I'm much kinder now – less judgmental, more thoughtful and more grateful," she says. "It has been life-changing for me."

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