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Innovative at any age

Mary Anne Hardy was at a crossroads in her nursing career. A health program she had been working for ended, and, not ready to retire, she was trying to figure out her next move.

At a conference she heard about patient advocates, who help people, particularly seniors and their adult children, navigate the increasingly complex American health care system.

“It was a light bulb,” said Hardy, 65, who became certified as an advocate and began taking clients in 2013. “I thought about my parents’ experience, and it was a motivator.”

In choosing her new vocation, Hardy, who lives in Derwood, Md., thought she could help others avoid the “nightmare” she had faced years earlier, she said. Her mother had a stroke and then bowel surgery, followed by a cascade of infections and other preventable ailments. She was transferred from facility to facility, with little communication among medical professionals or with her.

“People feel lost in the medical system,” Hardy said. With her by their side, they feel they “are taken seriously and listened to.”

Like many older entrepreneurs, Hardy is looking to her own peers for business opportunities. They are turning their lifelong skills into encore careers selling services and products in the booming senior consumer market. In some cases, like Hardy’s, their own experiences become catalysts for career moves at a time when others are retiring.

Tapping into a market

Hardy is at the intersection of two long-evolving trends: the rising number of later-in-life entrepreneurs and the growth in the so-called longevity market.

In 2019 roughly 25% of new entrepreneurs were between 55 and 64, up from 15% 20 years earlier, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship.

And in 2015 people 50 and older spent $5.6 trillion on goods and services, outpacing spending by consumers younger than 50, according to a study prepared for AARP by Oxford Economics, a forecasting firm. Besides their higher spending on health care, older people spent more on financial services, durable goods, nondurable goods and motor vehicles. The spending is projected to rise as the 50-plus group expands by 45% by 2050, compared with 13% for the younger group, the report said.

For older would-be entrepreneurs who want to capture a piece of the aging-related market, “you have to think of how you take your skills and passions and shift them to a new area,” said Mary Furlong, a consultant on longevity marketing.

Midlife owners, particularly those in the health fields, might find themselves with a leg up when dealing with older clients. Several studies show that seniors are more likely to take advice from peers on nutrition, fall prevention and the management of diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

“I think my age does work to my advantage,” Hardy said. “It really makes a difference to have someone helping them through the process.” As a patient advocate, she helps clients prepare questions for providers, attends medical appointments with them and reviews their care options.

The key to building Sharon Emek’s business was her prominence as a top insurance executive in New York. In 2010, when she was 64, Emek founded Work at Home Vintage Experts, or WAHVE, which matches insurance companies with professionals over 50 who work remotely as independent contractors.

Two big changes in the industry convinced Emek that such a venture had potential. Young workers were snubbing insurance for jobs on Wall Street. And many experienced workers who weren’t ready to retire wanted flexible work arrangements, perhaps moving closer to the grandchildren, she said. Female professionals were particularly worried that they would outlive their savings.

“I thought about this because I was living it myself. There was no way I wanted to retire — I need to be productive,” Emek said. “I felt I could help other people to continue to work. And companies could have access to amazing talent at a lower price.”

To help build her client base, Emek tapped her extensive contacts in the insurance industry and in women-in-business groups. “I had credibility from the start,” she said.

Much of WAHVE is based on technology, and while Emek had enough expertise to develop the original software, she said, “I knew when I reached my limit.” Initially using savings, she first used an outside programmer and then hired her own specialists.

For the first two years, Emek took no salary. The company now generates $22 million in revenue and manages 530 contracts, she said. The average age of contractors is roughly 60, and about 90% are women.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, she said, the firm has “been getting more requests because companies don’t know how to interview and hire remotely.”

Aging-in-place businesses

Services and products that cater to homebound seniors are a good fit for older entrepreneurs, experts say. Senior concierges, for example, run errands for older people and keep them company. A person who spent a career in the building trades might consider becoming a certified aging-in-place specialist, someone who modifies homes to keep people safe.

Technologies that monitor the health and safety of older people, such as automated medication dispensers and digital hearing aids, are also finding an eager market.

“Every day, I talk to someone who was an expert in the tech sector who then pivoted into the longevity market,” Furlong said.

Norman Miosi decided to go the personal-chef route, opening a Chefs for Seniors franchise in Nashville, Tenn., in January. His target customer: a senior who wants to remain at home but finds preparing fresh and nutritious meals too taxing.

With the over-60 population in the Nashville area projected to grow by 20% in the next 10 years, “there will be a lot of potential out there,” Miosi, 61, said.

Though he loves to cook, Miosi did not have that professional experience before he took on his second-act occupation. For most of his career, he sold software for Intuit in Buffalo, N.Y. But he had a tough time finding stable employment when he and his wife, Sandy, moved to Nashville more than four years ago to be closer to their two children and their grandchildren.

Miosi decided to go into business for himself. In 2019 he responded to an advertisement seeking a Chef for Seniors franchisee.

Each week, Miosi carries ingredients and his cookware to the kitchens of eight clients in their 60s to their 90s. Wearing a white chef’s jacket, he spends more than two hours preparing four meals, which last a week for two people.

A Facebook ad attracted Miosi’s first clients, including a couple of adult children seeking help for their parents. He has applied to become a “trade partner” with a large retirement community, which would enable him to advertise to its 1,000 households, he said.

For now Miosi is just breaking even. He paid $7,000 for a franchise fee, and he must pay for insurance, food, freezer containers, cookware and royalty fees on sales. His goal is to have 30 to 40 clients and hire chefs to work for him. At that point, he said, he expects that his business will provide a comfortable income for the next 10 years or so.

“I don’t really need to retire,” he said. “I can run a business and it’s not too taxing. And I’m also doing something good for the community.”

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