What she said: how can I find satisfying challenges in retirement?

The Sunday Times, August 4 2019, 12:01am

LEADING WOMEN; Each week, your career questions are answered by a successful female leader

Edna Adnan Ismail, the 81-year-old former first lady of Somaliland, is also a midwife and an FGM campaigner. In 2002, she founded the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital, which she continues to run. Her memoir, A Woman of Firsts, is out on Thursday

Q. Now that I’m retired, I struggle to find satisfying challenges. What can I do? Anne, 65

A. Retirement is a shock. Letting go of positions of authority and status is not easy. I was 60 when I retired from the World Health Organization, where I ran its programme in the Republic of Djibouti. It was very challenging — it was a war zone, there were outbreaks of cholera, there were many refugees who had to be kept alive. Losing that level of responsibility overnight was a shock to the system. What would I wake up for? You don’t have hobbies in Somaliland, there are no sports — my country had been levelled to the ground. However, for a long time, I’d had the idea to start a maternity hospital. That came with many responsibilities — I had to clear the land, I had to find the construction materials, the labour, the expertise. Without that, I would have died of boredom; I would have felt so useless.

I’m one of those people who has to achieve; I have to start and finish things. I also chair several governmental committees, and I’m the special envoy for Somaliland and negotiate dialogue and peace with Somalia. But it was in the hospital that I found my calling. Even now I work 14 to 15 hours a day, though I’ve weaned myself down from 18-hour days.

Although I won’t ever totally give up, I have learnt to let go — you have to delegate the heavy responsibility. For me, that came when I started training my nurses, and I found leaders to supervise the others. The last time I delivered a baby was about two years ago, but I still teach and do the administration. If I’d died 15 years ago, the hospital would have died with me, but now that I’ve let go, it would run itself.

I try to inspire people to be active in their later years. My younger brother, who is newly retired (he’s 78, and was a military man), volunteers at the hospital. He’s helping me, but he doesn’t know I’m helping him, too. It keeps him active, alert and happy, and the war veterans that we treat in the hospital are so grateful to be looked after by him. He has a reason to get up.

You don’t have to do something so intense. Become a mentor, an advisor, a patron, a consultant. You — and the sweat, time and energy that you invested into your career — will be looked up to and learnt from. Be the CEO of your own life. Put yourself on your to-do list: I have a bicycle in my bedroom and I hop on it for half an hour a day. Find a like-minded person to exercise with and set yourself targets, even if it’s just walking a few kilometres a day. It’s important to keep having challenges in your life.

Age is a feeling; I don’t feel any different to when I was 50 or 60. I feel passionate and the adrenaline that comes from that keeps me going. So it’s important to find whatever it is that pumps that through your body. Don’t waste your time if your heart isn’t in something — find something else. I have no plans to retire: why would I stop enjoying what I’m doing?

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