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Though mobility is often associated with young people, there are plenty of examples of seniors still working abroad. Their expertise is desperately needed.
Ursula Thiemens has always been on the move. She followed her calling as a physiotherapist with great passion, helping people with limited mobility to recover. In 2011, at the age of 66, Ursula Thiemens took on a new challenge that brought her all the way to San Juan de Los Lagos in Mexico. Thiemens began teaching, sharing her expertise with fellow volunteers at the local “Casa Fraterna” charity.
In the very same year, Wolfgang Reisen moved to Kati, a small community in Mali, for similar reasons. Reisen, who had worked as a waste-reduction expert for 25 years, was shocked by the sheer volume of trash that littered the streets and the countryside. His age – 68 at the time – did not keep him from jumping in to tackle Kati’s waste problem head on.
Around 20 million retirees in Germany face the “what now?” question at some point in their transition from employment to retirement. But retirees do not necessarily stop working once they have left gainful employment: According to the Allensbach Institute, 45% of all German retirees are still actively engaged in voluntary work and 57% feel that they are still just as responsible for society as young people.
45% of all German retirees are still actively engaged in voluntary work.
Ursula Thiemens and Wolfgang Reisen are good examples of professionals who see employment as more than just a means for earning money. They find self-realisation in engaging with an issue they consider important and meaningful. Both are committed to voluntary projects in Germany as well. Wolfgang Reisen describes himself as an active person who has always wanted to drive progress – and his retirement in 2009 did not change this attitude one bit. The waste usage expert has a vast store of experience gathered during his more than 25-year tenure as an executive at the municipal utilities in Erfurt. Throughout his career, he travelled through Cambodia, Vietnam, Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and applied his waste management and recycling know-how. In 2010, Reisen was approached by his former employer because Kati needed support in tackling their waste problem – Reisen’s professional knowledge was needed.
This is not a unique scenario. Some private companies, such as Bosch and Daimler, continue to employ their retired senior experts periodically or on a short-term basis to avoid losing valuable knowledge and take advantage of decades of experience and specific expertise. And senior experts are not only in demand with private global players; they are also needed by public and private organisations and companies in developing countries and emerging markets that often lack the financial capacity to properly compensate them.
Unlike young development professionals, senior experts have a distinct advantage: They have already had a successful career.
This is why the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce launched the Senior Expert Service (SES) with financial support from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) back in 1983. Regardless of their profession or former employer, retirees can register with the SES for voluntary work in Germany and abroad. SES clients, mainly small and medium-sized enterprises, public institutions, communities and vocational training centres in developing regions, cover the expense of hiring a senior expert if they can. Should they lack the funds, the SES – itself publically funded primarily by the BMZ and the Federal Ministry for Education and Research – helps cover the cost.
Almost 12,000 retirees are registered with the SES today. In 2014, it seconded senior experts to 4,200 domestic and international operations. “The SES offers a great opportunity for retirees to commit to applying their skills where they are needed, whether in Germany or abroad”, explains Wolfgang Reisen, who joined the SES in 2010. Kati had officially requested help by the SES which seconded Reisen as Senior Expert to Mali in 2011 and 2012.
Unlike young development professionals, senior experts have a distinct advantage: They have already had a successful career. On the one hand, they do not need to prove their worth through immediately visible project outcomes, and so are free to facilitate long-term and sustainable change. On the other hand, their age and many years of experience in their respective fields often mean they are highly respected by their partners in developing countries.
“I do not know any French, nor do most of the employees in Erfurt and he did not speak German. But it worked out very well”
Both Reisen and Thiemens are not professional development workers, but experts in a specific field who are willing to pass on their knowledge. Reisen understood that his commitment was a long-term one, since a waste problem cannot be solved overnight. First, he analysed the types of rubbish around Kati and discovered that 80% of the waste could be recycled. He then advised the community on how to recycle different types of rubbish. After his first trip to Kati, he returned in 2012 and 2014. He also organised on-the-job-training in Germany for a member of the Kati community at the municipal utilities in Erfurt. Despite language barriers, the exchange was very successful. Reisen notes: “I do not know any French, nor do most of the employees in Erfurt and he did not speak German. But it worked out very well. He wanted to experience the way we work on the issue and we wanted to give him this opportunity.” Moreover, Reisen organized the project "Clean Kati" - waste collection days in the Malian community with the purpose of raising awareness for the problem among citizens.
Nevertheless, the overarching goal of his field work was to implement a legal framework that would regulate waste disposal and involve initial recycling measures. Evidently, the legal change had to pass through a number of administrative stages and took much longer than the first steps in the rubbish collection process. But Reisen enjoyed respect and a certain authority. He explains that you have to understand the specific living circumstances of the local people in order to achieve successful long-term outcomes: “To me, it is important that we do not simply give them money and leave them to their own devices, but that we cooperate, so that they do not reinvent the wheel.” The legal framework that regulates waste disposal and makes littering a punishable offense was implemented in 2014.
“In Mexico, a man who can no longer work is considered weak. This is a terrible fate for a Mexican man and his family…”
While Wolfgang Reisen was experiencing how long it may take before one can reap the fruits of one’s labour, physiotherapist Ursula Thiemens was facing challenges of her own as well. Physiotherapists play an active role in Germany. Physical contact between a physiotherapist and the patient form the basis for most exercises, and the physiotherapist challenges the patient. The Mexican physiotherapists Thiemens has met primarily worked with machines and applied standardised procedures. The team of volunteers at Casa Fraterna appreciated the insights they gained from Thiemens’ approach and quickly adopted her practices. But the culturally engrained ‘machismo’ made it difficult to convince men to start physiotherapy treatment initially. Some men were so desperate, however, that they wanted to take advantage of any opportunity to increase their chances of recovery. “In Mexico, a man who can no longer work is considered weak. This is a terrible fate for a Mexican man and his family – many of them are farmers and dependent on their physical strength”, Thiemens explains. The success stories did the rest, convincing people to join the treatment plan, such as a male farmer who had been paralysed on one side due to a stroke. After 14 days of intensive physiotherapy with the Casa Fraterna team, who applied what they had been taught by Ursula Thiemens, the man was again able to walk towards his family – a “milagro”, a miracle, had occurred.
It was the patients themselves who helped Thiemens and her co-workers become officially recognised by the Mexican health system.
Nevertheless, Thiemens and her colleagues from Casa Fraterna encountered problems on a systemic level that could not be solved in the short-term either: While Mexican physiotherapists and volunteers from the field cooperated with her quite happily; the health system represented by the local hospitals was reluctant to do so. It took years of persistence and building up a good reputation in the region before hospitals would refer patients to Casa Fraterna for rehabilitation. It was the patients themselves who helped Thiemens and her co-workers become officially recognised by the Mexican health system. They and their families often travelled for hours at great financial risk to be treated by Thiemens’ team. A high percentage of patients – many of whom had been regarded as permanently restricted in their mobility or even disabled – recovered remarkably well or even fully thanks to physiotherapy. Demand to be treated by Thiemens’ team increased dramatically. She returned to San Juan de los Lagos year after year – even extending her stay at time. New physiotherapy training and treatment centres had to be opened to expand her team in different areas and meet local people’s demand for physiotherapy in their area.
Why do some people want to keep working after finishing their professional careers? The Federal Institute for Demographic Research investigated why some retirees choose to stay actively involved in their professional fields. The institute found that active retirees had enjoyed their jobs. But there are also more profound reasons, such as wanting to maintain social contact and stay mentally flexible, or enjoying feeling needed.
Ursula Thiemens’ reasons for signing up with the SES were very similar. She could not imagine simply ceasing to be a physiotherapist the moment she retired. When she began phasing out her professional career, her doctor recommended registering with the Senior Expert Service, because she knew that a ‘radical’ retirement might benefit Thiemens’ health, but not her psyche and general well-being. Though Thiemens had not worked abroad during her years of full-time employment, she developed this passion through her commitment as a senior expert.
She still sets herself high standards too – especially intellectually, which is why she took intensive language classes in English and Spanish prior to her first field trips: “I wanted to be able to communicate directly with the local people. It was hard in the beginning, but after a few weeks in Mexico, I was talking with everyone in Spanish and my language skills got even better day by day”. Thiemens has also advanced her computer skills and applied it at Casa Fraterna, where she set up a digital library on physiotherapy and diagnosing health problems. This minimises the loss of knowledge – even when she is not there.
Her colleague Wolfgang Reisen points out that he feels compelled to help people who ask for his support, especially after his first field trip to Kati in Mali: “When you have seen the circumstances the locals live in, it inspires a desire to offer continual help and to support them in making a sustainable change”.
“Ending your professional career is a psychological challenge – having a project like mine is very important and adds a lot to your self-esteem”
But the SES experience is beneficial for both sides: “Being needed is an enormous personal enrichment at this time of life. Ending your professional career is a psychological challenge – having a project like mine is very important and adds a lot to your self-esteem”, summarizes Thiemens. Both senior experts stress that their goal is capacity building. One day, the people in Kati and San Juan de los Lagos will be able to pass on the knowledge the senior experts gave them to future generations.
Ursula Thiemens and Wolfgang Reisen are optimistic. They have both made a lot of friends on their field trips. They emphasize how close the connections are when you have personally accompanied someone along the path to an improvement they desire and work hard for. Even though their jobs as senior experts in Kati and San Juan de los Lagos will be done one day, Thiemens and Reisen will maintain the personal connection to the countries they were assigned to. Reisen adds: “The people in Kati know that they can always contact me if they have any questions or doubts. They can count on me – and if I cannot help them myself, I will use my network here in Germany to support them. For me, this partnership does not simply end just because the predefined goal of a project has been achieved.” Ursula Thiemens does not want to consider ending her commitment either – not yet anyway. Her next journey to Mexico is already planned for this year. She is going to open up a third physiotherapy centre in which her mobility-enhancing exercises will be applied.
Photo: Copyright Senior Expert Service