Although it’s common to hear of older workers being laid off or pushed into retirement, there is also one type of place where older people are valued and sought-after: museums, art institutions, zoos and other venues that rely on unpaid docent volunteers in their 60s, 70s and 80s. I speak as someone who has found a new life as one of those older docents.
Six years ago, at 66, I visited Tohono Chul Park, a nature park near where I live in Tucson, Ariz. I’d been looking for a volunteer opportunity and was struck by the knowledge and enthusiasm of the docents who worked there, giving their time and expertise to educate others about the desert. I learned that these docents not only answered visitors’ questions, they led tours, interpreted (taught about) birds, plants and animals and manned special stations that demonstrate desert lore.
From Professional Writer to Docent
After 40 years as a professional writer, I was ready to try something new. “I could do this,” I thought. “I could become a nature docent.”
Three months later, I was sitting in a classroom with 20 other late-life learners, studying the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert. Every week of our training, we were expected to roam the grounds and identify plants, as well as take and pass quizzes. It was much like a college seminar, except for the ages of the participants.
A longtime resident thanked me for teaching her about local trees: “I’ve lived here 40 years and now I see the desert in a whole new way.”
When I graduated six months later, I knew more than I could have imagined and couldn’t wait to share my knowledge with park visitors. The word “docent,” after all, comes from the Latin docere, “to teach.”
I liked being a nature docent so much that four years later I also enrolled in the docent program at the world-famous Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a combination zoo and desert botanical garden near Tucson.
Why Older Docents Are Prized
Marie Long, Associate Director of Conservation Education & Science there, explains that when interviewing prospective docents she looks for “a passion for learning, the desire to share knowledge with others, a positive attitude, love of the Sonoran Desert and the desire to work with youth.” She especially prizes applicants over 50, because, Long says, “this group is transitioning from their professional careers and looking to reconnect with personal interests, give back to their communities, and connect with new friends with similar interests.” She finds them “among the most dedicated and mission-supportive people in our volunteer corps.”
Many older docents volunteer at more than one venue as I do. Priscilla Herrier, 69, who docents at Tohono Chul Park and the Tucson Museum of Art (TMA), admits that being a “double docent” is time-consuming, but she loves her work at both places.
“Tohono Chul nurtures my love of the desert and the Southwest and TMA nurtures my love of art,” says Herrier. “Both offer me the pleasure of working with the public, meeting people from many different places and constantly learning new things.”
The ‘Best Part of the Experience’
Visitors to the venues where I volunteer frequently remark in surveys that the docents are the best part of the experience. The comment cards often speak of the docents’ warmth and depth of knowledge.
“They made us feel as if we were visitors in their home,” one family told the Desert Museum. A high-school teacher described her students’ visit as “like taking a bunch of little kids to Disneyland.” Just the other day, a longtime resident of Tucson thanked me for teaching her about the local trees. “I’ve lived here 40 years,” she said, “and now I see the desert in a whole new way.”
Though they are not paid, docents are rewarded by their institutions in various ways, ranging from badges for the amount of time donated to free admission for family members. But most would agree that the real reward is docenting itself.
Noreen Geyer-Kordosky, 67, who has been a docent at the Desert Museum for more than 35 years, says she “enjoys helping visitors look at ways to become good stewards of the environment.” First-year Desert Museum docent Betty Eppler, also 67, agrees that interacting with visitors is her favorite part of the job. And, she adds, “it’s nice to be regarded as a competent and valued individual as well. This is not a common experience for older people, especially women.”
Where to Find Docent Openings
If you’re interested in becoming a docent in retirement, there are opportunities in every city and state in the country. In addition to zoos and art museums, countless other specialized institutions such as the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento and the Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village in Dover, whose docents interpret the history of agriculture in America. The Smithsonian Institution, which has nearly 10,000 volunteers among its 19 museums and research facilities, offers a huge range of opportunities for its docents.
To find docent positions in your area, check the websites of museums, zoos and other public institutions and look for “volunteer opportunities.” Most places offer docent training once every year or two and require a volunteer commitment of two years. Docents typically work for one hour or more one to three days per week, but this varies by institution as well as by docent.
Loren Bullock, who is still a docent at 90, has volunteered at various Smithsonian venues since 1959. He currently works at the National Postal Museum which documents the history of the postal service. Bullock, who retired from marketing computers in 1989, was attracted to docenting because of his love of history.
He takes seriously the purpose of the Smithsonian, described by its founder James Smithson as “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Docents fulfill that purpose, Bullock says, as “storytellers who make our history and culture come alive for visitors,” adding with a joke that “Being a docent is fun, and allows us to contribute to others; besides, they double our salary every year!”