“Now where was I?”
I hope I can be forgiven for thinking Sibilla Johnson has lost her train of thought, but the 75-year-old health worker isn’t having a “senior moment”; she’s mentally trawling through a diary of eye-popping busyness, trying to recall which island community she was teaching last May.
Sibilla may have retired from her full time role as director of Adventist Health Ministries in Victoria – where she designed, delivered and trained others to run health courses – but two-years on, she’s yet to show signs of giving up work.
Her diary is like a cartographer’s notebook, with the names of towns, villages and community centres dotted across Australia and the South Pacific; written in neat script alongside the dates she’s scheduled to deliver community health education programs that are designed to combat serious health issues in indigenous and remote populations.
“Diabetes is sky high in many of these places and life expectancy is low and that’s almost entirely due to diet and lifestyle,” Sibilla says. “The teaching I do is about how the body functions, how the mind and body are related and how food and drink affects us. I like to think it makes a real difference.”
“Retirement may be the end of your working life, but it is the beginning of having greater control, when you can and should make the most of every day.”
In September she is scheduled to train others in Tonga and Vanuatu to do what she does. Last year she conducted similar training programs across Australia – in WA, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.
“This year I only took on one training course, which is in Newcastle, because if I don’t slow down I won’t last,” she says. “I’d like to do more work but I can’t because I don’t have time. You saw my diary, it’s true. I just want to keep going as long as I can.”
In fact, since her retirement in 2015, Sibilla has taken on even greater responsibilities, and is now working in a volunteer capacity for the organisation’s national head-office, covering all of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.Sibilla’s one concession to “retirement” is to schedule two days off during the week “if possible” and to keep one day to herself at the weekend… “though weekends are when seminars are conducted and I don’t like to miss those; I just feel very fulfilled to do it”.
“Retirement may be the end of your working life, but it is the beginning of having greater control, when you can and should make the most of every day,” Sibilla says. “I’ve worked in the field of health education for many years and it’s still what keeps me young at heart.
“I believe if you’re searching for satisfaction in retirement, you should start by asking what you can contribute.”
Sibilla asked herself that question a long time ago; in 1977, when she and her husband Arthur set up home in Papua New Guinea. Arthur worked as an accountant for Sanitarium Health Foods and helped establish the company in PNG. Sibilla, meanwhile, started “a little health food shop”.
“That’s where my passion for nutrition started, especially
childhood nutrition,” Sibilla says. “We were there for a long time, until 1984, and were very active in the community.
“When we came home Arthur said to me, ‘I’ve left a piece of my heart behind in PNG’. I had too, and we agreed that when we retired we should go back.”
Arthur liked to plan ahead and he invested their finances wisely, ensuring there would be enough to care for their family’s needs with plenty left over to finance their retirement goal, to work together as volunteers in the Pacific Islands.
“Sadly that wasn’t to be; Arthur passed away before we got to realise that dream together,” Sibilla says. “I don’t get on every plane thinking ‘this is what Arthur would have wanted me to do’, but I do feel very privileged to be able to do it.”
But she wasn’t always sure she would be able to do it. Without Arthur, Sibilla felt “all at sea” with the finances and she had no idea who to turn to for help.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t share; we were very close and married for almost 50 years. It’s just that he looked after all that and I didn’t have to think about it,” Sibilla says. “When he was gone, I knew that I had to learn quite a few things very quickly.”
Sometimes, you’ve got to ask for help
A chance call from Mercer, just weeks after she retired – made as part of a customer connections program – led to an appointment with Mercer financial adviser, Shaun Cossart-Walsh. He says Sibilla showed up looking worried and uncertain.
“I think she had a gut feel that she was going to be OK but she didn’t really understand what was going on with the money,” Cossart-Walsh says. “She was worried she was going to mess it up somehow, that she and her husband had built this wealth and that she was not going to manage it effectively and pass it on to the next generation.”
But whilst Sibilla was struggling with the numbers, she was very clear about her priorities; firstly to ensure her children’s and grandchildren’s needs were met; secondly that she would have enough to live comfortably and to continue her work in PNG and the Pacific Islands; and finally, to honour her and Arthur’s dream by ensuring that work had a lasting impact.
“She wanted to know if she could afford to put $100,000 toward a medical and diagnostic clinic in Honiara in the Solomon Islands,” Cossart-Walsh says. “We did the analysis and I said ‘yes, you’re going to able to afford all that’.
“There was a massive sense of relief that someone could help her take care of the finances, that what she hoped to do was possible and that she could relax, jump on the next plane and go do what she does best.”
Ask what you can contribute
Sibilla says the Honiara project is designed to address key deficiencies in the country’s healthcare system including diagnostic, medical and dental services, as well as programs to reduce diabetes and other non-communicable diseases (NCD’s).
“This Centre will be the only facility in the Solomon Islands to offer services to reduce NCD’s,” Sibilla says. “I have been asked to do some teaching there as well, including our Health Education training course.”
Sibilla doesn’t see herself as anything special – “It’s just my everyday life” – and she’s not one to preach – “not everybody does it that way and that’s fine”.
But there’s one piece of advice she’s happy to offer anyone who’ll listen: “have a plan”.
“I have learned that everything important in life needs to be planned for, it doesn’t just happen,” Sibilla says. “One key to a successful retirement is to focus on what you are retiring to, not what you are retiring from.”
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