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.

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."

Marcia Gould in her pumpkin-colored kitchen.
Marcia Gould in her pumpkin-colored kitchen

Marcia Gould. Many people who come to Leisure World are selling the house where they raised their families to move to a much smaller apartment. But parting with a lifetime of furniture and mementos can be so painful that some end up stuffing the contents of that house into their new place. That's where Marcia Gould, 73, comes in. From visiting apartments of fellow Leisure World residents, she saw an opening that would allow her finally to realize her dream of being an interior designer.

Gould has had many jobs. She was a secretary. Then she stayed home with her two children. Then she helped her husband with his liquor store, bar, and restaurant. But always she wanted to pursue her passion for design. In her 50s, after her two daughters were grown, she enrolled in community college and earned an associate's degree in interior decorating. But starting over in middle age in the decorating business was too hard, so she took an administrative-assistant job with the federal government, finally retiring at age 67. Why did she work so long? "Money. I paid for both my daughters' colleges and weddings. My husband and I traveled everywhere. I would have worked longer, but I got offered a $25,000 buyout."

She's busy with activities, from tai chi to volunteering at a nursing home. But at Leisure World she realized, she had a built-in customer base for her design services. Gould abhors clutter and loves color. She knows that her fellow Leisure World residents are often on fixed incomes, so for $50 an hour she can quickly give advice on which pieces of furniture to ditch, how to arrange what's left, and what color to put on the walls to banish the institutional white.

Getting rid of stuff is a sensitive topic. "I have clients who say, 'This was my mother-in-law's, this was my mother's.' I had one client who had three sofas in the living room." We go down the hall to the apartment of client Fred Denecke. He's a retired Navy pilot, a veteran of World War II who won't give his age—he's a widower who's dating. We enter the apartment with its striking Asian art, and Gould waves her hand around it and says, "This was—" at which Denecke interrupts, "Shocking. Shocking." She indicates where she has moved a picture here, placed a rug there.

She has no plans to retire until circumstances force her: "As long as I can move, I will be active. If you do not move, you're going to get old."

Barbara Manning holds her cosmetology license.
Barbara Manning holds her cosmetology license

Barbara Manning. Manning, who will be 61 next month, spent almost 30 years as a special-education teacher. "It was like a bad marriage I was trapped in for financial reasons," she says. She, like Realtor Heyman, was ready for adult conversation. She took an early retirement in her 50s, and moved into Leisure World two years ago with her mentally disabled younger sister.

She always had a flair for hair and she used to style her friends and relatives, but without a license, she couldn't take paying customers. Then a small inheritance a few years ago allowed her to go to cosmetology school and get trained as a beautician. She worked at the Hair Cuttery, but quickly realized she wanted her own business.

When she came to Leisure World, she saw there were many housebound older residents. She realized she could offer a unique service: She could go to their apartments and do their hair. She bought a rolling cart, filled a closet at home with beauty supplies, and began advertising in the Leisure World News. She charges $18 for a cut, $50 for a perm.

"They break a hip. They get sick. They're taking care of a spouse. There are lots of reasons people need you to come to them. I'm older. I can relate. I have rapport," she says. She now has about 25 regular clients, and because she lives on-site, she is able to attend to last-minute hair needs. One client called her on Thanksgiving Day, another on New Year's Eve. Recently, the daughter of a resident about to undergo chemotherapy called asking Manning to cut her mother's hair as a transition to temporarily losing it.

"Even if people don't leave the house, they want to look nice. They have a therapist coming. One husband calls to arrange appointments for his wife before she goes to the doctor." Many of her clients had accomplished careers and were world travelers. As Manning does a wash and set, she often hears that they mostly miss the little things: being able to do their own grocery shopping and make a meal, going out to choose a gift for the grandchildren. It's made her grateful for her own independence. "I say, 'Thank you, Lord,' that I'm able to clean my own bathroom."

Manning has an easy, graying pixie cut she maintains herself. But she doesn't push particular styles on clients. "Some people say, 'I don't want an old lady haircut.' " Some want a traditional wash and set. "I'm not an artiste. I provide a service." She hopes to keep going for at least the next decade. She's looking to expand her base by offering her services one or two days a week at nearby assisted-living communities and nursing homes. "I'm busy and I see myself getting busier."

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