For four decades, Jean Hardwick had a good, stable career, health and life insurance and a Sarasota, Fla. home she owned and loved. Then in 2015, catastrophe struck. After a near-fatal reaction to a prescription medication, Hardwick, now 60, found herself undergoing heart surgery, suffering from seizures and facing more than $500,000 in medical bills.
“There is government assistance, but it’s loaded with Catch-22s,” Hardwick said. “They say, ‘We can’t help you because you own a home, so call us back when the property is not in your name anymore.’ Applying for disability takes around two years. In the meantime, you sell your furniture and clothes to make ends meet.”
While Hardwick was finally on the road to recovery, she lost her home. After her disability payments began coming through, she decided to make a change and begin living a nomadic life, driving from temp job and location to another.
“In December 2019, I lucked into an older campervan [a van equipped as a traveling home] and sold or gave away everything,” she explained.
Hardwick’s not despondent about her new life. She says she sees it more like “processing, figuring out how to move forward, trying to find silver linings.”
Who’s living in Nomadland in America
Hardwick is just one of many Americans over 60 who — when faced with mounting debt and exorbitant housing prices — have decided to pack it all in . Into their van or small RV that is, working odd jobs on the road and living in “Nomadland,” which is the name of new, acclaimed film starring the award-winning actress Frances McDormand now playing on Hulu and in theaters.
“Nomadland” is a fictional story based on the real-life people featured in journalist Jessica Bruder’s bestselling book of the same name. (Next Avenue’s Richard Eisenberg wrote about the book in his 2017 article, “ The Rough Lives of Older Americans in ‘Nomadland .'”)
The Golden Globes-nominated film follows a middle-aged woman named Fern (played by McDormand) who, like Hardwick, faces extreme financial challenges. Fern is a rural widow who loses her job at the U.S. Gypsum factory in Empire, Nev., and chooses to live in her van, working short-term jobs as an Amazon warehouse seasonal worker and at an RV park as a camp host.
“Nomadland,” written and directed by Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao (the first woman to receive the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Director of the Year Award), features real nomads Linda May “Swankie” and Bob Wells, creator of the popular CheapRVLiving YouTube channel . All are over 60.
Twenty years ago, Wells — a former grocery store worker — was also forced into van life, following a divorce that left him with little money to pay rent and other expenses. “I drove past a business with a big, green box van for sale and thought, ‘I could live in that and then I wouldn’t have to pay rent and I could keep my own money,'” said Wells.
At first, Wells said, he felt like a failure and that van life was a blow to his self-esteem. But, he noted, things changed when he changed his thinking.
“I just acted like I was going camping,” Wells said. “I adapted, and it started to feel very comfortable. Plus, I was saving a thousand dollars a month from not paying rent.”
Wells also found freedom as a nomad.
“Our society and our values are all oriented towards things and money and power and prestige,” he said. “When you live in a van, you don’t have any of that. But I also had more time to spend with my family and I had peace of mind.”
In “Nomadland,” which was filmed at actual camps set up by true nomads, Fern faces her own van life stigma. A former neighbor approaches her and says she heard that Fern was homeless. “I’m not homeless, I’m houseless ,” Fern retorts.