Starting a business in retirement: four women who've figured out how to make money working at their retirement community.

All you need to know about retirement.
March 24 2011 7:00 AM

Retirement Entrepreneurs

They may live in "Leisure World," but these clever, ambitious retirees have figured out how to make money by turning their neighbors into customers.

When you move to a place called Leisure World, it's almost as if there is a mandate to relax, take up a hobby, putter around the golf course, or try your hand at shuffleboard. Certainly, for many of the 8,500 residents of Leisure World, an over-55 age-restricted community in Silver Spring, Maryland, leaving the demands of work behind is a primary reason to move there. But others have come to realize that their fellow residents, living within a ring of guard houses, are actually a captive market. These people may have come to Leisure World to retire, but once there an entrepreneurial drive propelled them to embark on a second (or third, or fourth) career.

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These Leisure World entrepreneurs are at the vanguard of a national trend. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, older workers are increasingly staying on the job. In the period between 1977 and 2007, their study found, the number of employed men 65 and older rose 75 percent. That was nothing compared with the older women, whose presence in the workforce increased nearly 150 percent. The bureau reports the trend is only going to accelerate: "By 2016, workers age 65 and over are expected to account for 6.1 percent of the total labor force, up sharply from their 2006 share of 3.6 percent."

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, says, "Today more older adults feel work is an integral part of their identity and see paid work as continuing to be a piece of their retirement." A study from the center found that not only are many older Americans working longer; they often change jobs and are increasingly turning to self-employment. Self-employed older workers tend to put off full retirement longer than their wage-earning counterparts. These late-in-life careers, the researchers found, are often a bridge between full-time employment and withdrawal from the workforce and are also a chance for older people finally to pursue their "dream" job.

These findings are borne out by the women entrepreneurs of Leisure World profiled here.

         

The phone is fine for Sue Heyman and her clients.
The phone is fine for Sue Heyman and her clients

Sue Heyman. Heyman, 67, a Realtor, divides her clients into those outside the Leisure World gates and those within them. Outside, her clients text and email their questions and want everything done yesterday. Inside Leisure World, the phone is fine, and for many of her clients there are only yesterdays—she often works with the grown children of residents who have died or are moving to a nursing home.

She left a teaching career 24 years ago to go into real estate. "You don't have a lot of control as a teacher. And I wanted to work with adults." But two teaching skills, creativity and organization, have helped make her a top agent. She is a relentless worker, on the job six days a week. Her office with Weichert Realtors at Leisure World Plaza is minutes from her home. "I'm a workaholic," she says. "I'm very goal-oriented." She has promised her husband she'll be home for an early dinner, but it often doesn't happen. She ticks off just some of her activities for the coming week: a home inspection, a meeting with a kitchen designer, a settlement, preparing her ad copy for two senior-focused newspapers, Leisure World News and the Beacon, getting two new listings ready.

She's been a Leisure World resident for eight years and plans to gradually move her entire business inside Leisure World. Her husband worked for the federal government, then did consulting, and now he's retired. He golfs, plays tennis, delivers meals on wheels. Heyman can't envision it for herself: "I would be bored. I don't know how much leisure I can do."

Stephanie Sidella (on the right) with client Martha Hackett.
Stephanie Sidella (on the right) with client Martha Hackett

Stephanie Sidella, 64, runs her own one-woman company, Kompanion Kare, in which she does for declining seniors what family members can't be there to do. Sidella, who had a long and varied professional career, including stints in personnel and running a medical transcription company, was widowed in her 40s when her husband, an airline pilot, died of cancer. She has two grown daughters and three grandchildren, and four years ago she moved from her big house to an apartment in Leisure World. After a few months there, she says, "I woke up one morning and felt I was getting the Leisure World mentality." That is, there was nothing really crucial ahead in her day that would prompt her to get out of bed. About the only place she had to be was at the water-aerobics classes she has been teaching for 30 years, but those five hours a week were not motivation enough.

She noticed that many of her fellow residents, who may have come to Leisure World when they were fit and active, had become infirm and housebound. She realized she could be a bridge for residents who were no longer independent but not ready for a nursing home. "I could visit people, cheer them up, hear their stories," she says, then adds about herself, "And everyone needs more money."

Sidella is careful to point out she provides companionship and oversight; she is not a licensed health care professional. But finding a niche caring for the oldest old is a good strategy for employment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, health-care support occupations, particularly for the elderly, will be an expanding field.

She started advertising in the Leisure World News, and soon she was taking older residents to doctor appointments, organizing their medications, doing puzzles with one client, and driving another to visit her husband in a nursing home. Sidella went for walks with one client, Martha Hackett, now 90. Sidella did her laundry and took her on shopping trips, and they had conversations about their grandchildren.

Eventually Hackett's family realized she needed full-time care, and they moved her to an assisted-living facility. Hackett was uncomfortable with the aides who looked after her—there was no conversation—so her family re-engaged Sidella, who now comes three mornings a week. Sidella has degenerative disc problems in her neck and back, but she'd like to keep up her work for as long as possible. "I'm definitely happier now that I have the business. I'm still contributing."

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