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Cover Story: Seniors at Work

Here's the latest in retirement living: Work! Meet the new bar owner, dog musher, life saver, and other "retirees."

By Thomas Grillo

cover1.jpgAfter 32 years of teaching in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, Catherine Blume looked forward to retirement and spending more time with her family at their second home in the Poconos, a beautiful resort area in the northeast Penn-sylvania mountains that’s just two hours from Blume’s home.

“That’s what we thought, anyway,” says Blume, who retired in 1999 at age 56. “I think we spent two weeks there last summer.”

Blume has discovered that it’s not so easy to get away when dozens of pets and their owners are depending on you. The former fifth-grade teacher helped launch Paws & Tails, a pet-sitting business, with her son. She confesses that she loves the work and doesn’t miss the Poconos.

Blume has lots of company when it comes to working in “retirement.” Since the mid-1980s, the percentage of working retirees in America has been on the rise. In 2001, the most recent data available, 18 percent of people age 65 and over participated in the labor force, up from 15.8 percent in 1985, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The agency predicts that by 2010, the percentage will reach nearly 20 percent.

Among retirees 55 to 64, two-thirds are in the workforce.

A recent study of retirees by Putnam Investments, a Boston-based money management firm, found that one-third of the newly retired returned to work after 18 months.

Working retirees said they went back for the physical and mental stimulation, to stay socially connected, and because they found it personally satisfying.

cover2.jpgMichigan  retiree Elizabeth Wurtz, 76, has found fulfillment as a volunteer patient advocate. Though she’s not paid for her work, she has the satisfaction of knowing she’s saving lives.

While working as a guidance counselor in 1984, Wurtz learned that her principal’s wife Amy, a teacher, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The doctor had recommended that the tumor be surgically removed with the likelihood that she would no longer be able to speak.

“I told my principal, ‘You must get a second opinion. Amy’s a teacher and she needs her voice,’” recalls Wurtz. “I suggested that Amy see a neighbor of mine who was the head of neurosurgery at the University of Michigan Health System. They agreed and the doctor used a new laser procedure to dissipate the tumor. I shepherded her through the procedure and recuperation and she taught for many years with her speech intact.”

Wurtz comes from a family of physicians. Today, she spends about 20 hours a week caring for patients. She accompanies seniors on medical appointments and talks to physicians on behalf of her patients.

“I do it because I’m successful at it,” Wurtz says. “I have the smarts, I’m not intimidated by doctors, and I have the contacts to do it well.’’

John Yevuta may just be a lifesaver of a different kind by serving up a frosty cold one or a mochaccino. After teaching for 32 years in New Martinsville, West Virginia, Yevuta retired in 2004 at age 55. The former teacher looked forward to retirement and more time playing golf. But it hasn’t turned out that way. He and a former student opened the Baristas Café & Pub in downtown New Martinsville.

“We often talked about the fact that this town needed a nice pub where folks could sit down and have a beer,” he says. “Our goal was to create a non-smoking place that we’d like to go to and help revitalize Main Street at the same time.”

While still teaching sixth grade, Yevuta invested $5,000 in the hopes that the café would succeed. At the time, people told him a non-smoking café and pub would never make it.

“All the naysayers said a non-smoking bar wouldn’t fly, but we figured we didn’t want to work in a smoking atmosphere,” he says. “We don’t make a lot of money but we eat and drink well.”

Yevuta acknowledged that having a small business while teaching is exhausting and he doesn’t recommend it.

“I was burning the candle at both ends. I bartended at night and taught during the day,” he admits. “But while I enjoyed my career as a teacher, what I like about bartending is that people want to be here–that’s more than I can say about some of my former students.”

Since he opened the pub and café, Yevuta has invested another $5,000 in a local fitness center and $9,000 for a bike shop that his son manages. And Yevuta says he won’t stop there. He plans to renovate the upstairs of the bike store and fitness shop into a B&B (bed and breakfast).

Still, Yevuta says he’s not getting rich as a small businessman.

“I’m earning a fraction of what I made as a teacher. The café and pub are doing well, but the bike shop and fitness center have yet to turn a profit. It’s about a lifestyle, not cash,” he says. “If we wanted to make more money we would have opened up on a heavily traveled route. Instead, we decided to try our hand at renovating Main Street.”

As for golf, Yevuta says it’s not even a thought anymore. While teaching, he played daily. Last summer he played twice.

cover4.jpgThe transition to work in retirement was easy for John and Donna Mollan, who taught for 30 years in Vancouver, Washington. John retired in 1999 at age 51 and Donna retired in 2000 at 52.

While they were teaching, the couple spent summers traveling around the globe in a travel-study program through the Antioch University Heritage Institute. They taught classes about the culture, language, and history of destinations including Mexico, Alaska, and the Lewis and Clark expedition camp in Astoria, Oregon.

“We always said we should continue to do this when we retired,” says Donna. So they did.

“We discovered there’s a need for people to lecture on cruise ships,” Donna explains. So far, she says the most breathtaking excursion has been a 16-day voyage from Los Angeles to Mexico, then through the Panama Canal to Costa Rica, Aruba, and up to Miami.

They offered lectures at sea about pirates, the history of the canal, survival Spanish for the travelers, and the geography and ecology of the countries they visited.

Now, the Mollans are hard at work creating a presentation for a March trip to New Zealand, South America, and the South Pacific islands including Easter Island and the Galapagos.

Vacationers on cruise ships want to pursue intellectual interests, Donna says, but sadly there are too few opportunities. Many travelers tell them that it’s great that they can learn something instead of just play shuffleboard.

The best part?  “Once we do our lecture we’re free to travel and be tourists,” she says. “We can go on shore and see all these great places we could never afford on a retired teacher’s income.”

cover3.jpgLela Schlitz was a 40-year-old career-changer when she became a primary grade teacher in San Bernardino, California in 1981. Her last few years of teaching were stressful. “I left teaching feeling very burned out from a lack of support from administrators,” she says. “I gave my heart to the job and I loved teaching, but I didn’t look forward to going to school and, as much as I cared about the kids, I felt I wasn’t giving enough.

“By the end of my last year, I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

When Schlitz retired in 2002 at age 60, her husband Harry was operating a touring dog sled team.

A decade before, the couple had invested $5,000 and purchased five dogs. They took them to a nearby ski resort on Lake Arrowhead and gave people dog sled rides for cash.

“We went to Lake Arrowhead on weekends and slogged through the snow on a sled in winter and a golf cart in summer,” she says. “It was exhausting. As mushers we push more than we ride.”

A turning point came when she gave a fellow teacher a dog sled ride. The teacher told Schlitz that her class was reading Stone Fox and asked the couple to bring the dogs and the sled to her school. The much-loved classic book tells the story of a boy determined to win a dog sled race to save his grandfather’s farm. 

“That’s when we realized we could tie this in with literature,” she says. “We use Stone Fox in the elementary classes and Call of the Wild among high schoolers.”

A few years ago, the couple left their California home and bought 20 acres in Montana. They made connections with schools, nursing homes, preschool centers, and libraries, and named their business “Montana Mountain Mushers.”

In schools, they conduct hourlong assemblies. The children pet the dogs after learning the best way to approach an animal, and they get a glimpse into the lives of these working dogs.

“There’s an undeniable connection between dogs and children and dogs and seniors,” she says. “When seniors see the dogs, they reminisce about their own pets. It brings back wonderful memories about their childhood.”

Today, Schlitz says she is having the time of her life teaching without the stress of classroom work.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would have mushed a dog sled,” she says. “But I found something that I can put my heart and soul into.”

As for Elizabeth Wurtz, her new role of patient advocate has given her many happy experiences, and none more satisfying than the time a 50-year-old woman in a wheelchair arrived at her door. The patient had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years earlier. But her symptoms didn’t look like MS to Wurtz, so she arranged for a new evaluation at an Ann Arbor clinic.

The clinic doctors decided she had a back ailment that needed extensive physical therapy, but no MS.

The therapy was rigorous, but “she came to me in a wheelchair, and now she’s swimming and horseback-riding with her children,” says Wurtz.

That patient was her daughter.

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