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9 Senior Businesses to Start

Seniors are the hottest demographic out there, and this market is only going to get bigger. Get in on this growth industry with these nine hot businesses.

Whoever coined the phrase "growing old gracefully" must have had a good idea of what today's senior demographic would look like. With available retirement income and a willingness to spend it on products and services that make them feel younger, more at ease and better equipped to stay at home longer, the 60-plus set is hardly content to check into a retirement home and play Bingo.

As of March 2002, there were nearly 45 million 60-and-older individuals in the United States, or 15.9 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. What's more, the Census Bureau predicts the number of seniors will rise to 70.3 million (20 percent of the population) between 2011 and 2030.

Let's not forget the 77 million baby boomers: In 2006, the oldest boomers will turn 60. And according to a May 2004 AARP study, people 45 and older spent $2.28 trillion in 2001-accounting for a whopping 52 percent of all consumer dollars spent in the United States.

"It's a huge market, and we're a powerful generation," notes Stella Henry, founder and director of Vista Del Sol Health Care Services , a nursing home and assisted living facility in Culver City, California, and a longtime expert on seniors and aging. "Here we come, kicking and screaming."

Senior Care Consultant

When it comes time to move out of your home-perhaps the place where you've spent the better part of your life--the last thing you want to deal with is pesky details. Helping seniors find a quality environment in which to spend their golden years, and easing the transition into the new surroundings, can be an invaluable service to those who have a lifetime of memories to sort through.

That's one thing that attracted Karen J. Martin, an antiques hobbyist turned entrepreneur, to the business of helping seniors take inventory of, appraise and liquidate their possessions. "What's really important is helping people sort through a lifetime of possessions, maybe things they haven't seen in years," says the 52-year-old Farmington, Connecticut, president and owner of Karen J. Martin LLC , started in 2000.

The options are many in this sector, as you can also provide services like helping research new places to live, finding a realtor, selling the home, packing belongings, arranging for or performing the actual move, and unpacking at the new destination. Jim Stevens, president of Cleveland-based Caring Transitions Inc. , a member of the National Association of Senior Move Managers, started his company in June 2003 to help seniors with the physical packing and unpacking, moving, resettling and myriad details involved with a big move. "So many times, immediate family lives out of town, state or even the country," says Stevens, 55, who expects 2004 sales to double from last year. "There needs to be a reliable, caring and empathetic individual available to fill in for family that cannot lend a hand."

If you go the moving-management route, expect to spend up to $10,000, plus the cost of a vehicle, on an initial supply of packing materials, a dolly, a toolkit and professional uniforms.

Above all, be prepared to lend a listening ear. "Most important is listening to their stories as they reminisce," says Martin. "That's the heart of this life move--hearing the history of [someone's] life."

Nonmedical Home Care

With today's seniors feeling younger than ever, more of them want live-at-home alternatives than out-of-home care. "We're going to have to bring the community into [the home] when it becomes difficult for the population to come out," says Stella Henry, author of a forthcoming HarperCollins book on caring for aging parents. "Nonmedical home care is going to be a huge area."

That's what David Goodman, 43, has found with both of his nonmedical home-care ventures: Expert Home Care, the New Brunswick, New Jersey, company he founded in 1984; and Companion Connection Senior Care , a New York City-based national membership organization he created in 2003 to help people start their own businesses providing nonmedical home care. "While the nonmedical home-care industry is very much in demand now, it will have an unprecedented future demand as the baby boomers continue to age," says Goodman, whose Expert Home Care brought in $3 million last year; Companion Connection's 25 members have earned, thus far, an estimated $1 million. "Never before in our country's history have there been so many seniors with significant financial resources."

Financial resources aside, "the most common need for seniors is social interaction," says Goodman. "Many [seniors] have difficulty getting out of the house, either because they can no longer drive or because they are afraid of falling. These limitations intensify the sense of isolation they feel every day."

A service like Companion Connection, with an hourly or live-in caregiver providing meal preparation, light housekeeping, medication reminders, monitoring of ambulation, transportation to and from doctor's appointments, and companionship, keeps seniors from feeling alone. "Depression is a huge problem with the elderly, especially if loved ones have passed on and family members live far away," says Goodman. "A compassionate caregiver can bring joy and purpose back into a senior's life."

Senior Meal Delivery

Making sure seniors eat healthily and regularly is top-of-mind for caregivers, if not for seniors themselves. Delivering fresh, healthy meals for less than $20 a day, Tom Murphy's Good Measure began in 2003 as a sequel to his 24-year-old Murphy's restaurant in Atlanta.

When Murphy's mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1998, he helped her by bringing nutritious meals to her home. Following her death in 2001, he set out to help others like her who didn't have the means to hire a resident cook and who didn't qualify for programs like Meals on Wheels. "I realized that if you were rich, you could hire a chef; if you were indigent, Meals on Wheels helped," says Murphy. "But what about the average American--who helped them?"

Be sure to educate yourself about what seniors want and need in terms of fresh, nutritious meals. Richard Schenkel, CEO of Boston-based Unidine Corp. , which provides outsourced dining services to the senior market and hospitals, notes a few major patterns: "quality, familiarity and an increased interest in healthy choices." He also adds, "The expectation is on more homestyle, cooked-from-scratch meals and, where applicable, a more traditional meal service, including light breakfasts and more traditional lunches and dinners."

To familiarize yourself with local restrictions on preparing food in your home; you'll likely need access to a commercial kitchen as well as refrigerated trucks. "[You] need to do your homework and learn this specific industry. It's not restaurant, and it's not grocery store--it's unique," says Murphy, 47, who estimates his business will have 2004 sales of $500,000. "Seniors have many different [dietary] needs. Meeting those needs will be a challenge, but it's a demand that our society must meet."

Senior Clothing & Products

Maintaining seniors' dignity was the driving force behind Julie Ruhlander's Clothing Solutions , a catalog sales company specializing in apparel and accessories for those who need dressing assistance. Back and side openings, soft yet durable fabrics, and modesty jumpsuits for Alzheimer's and dementia patients prone to undressing are just some of the offerings of this Santa Ana, California, company founded in 1989.

Taking care of her elderly grandmother and aunt opened Ruhlander's eyes to the need for products that both make it easier for seniors to dress themselves and alleviate pain in dressing. "It was so hard for them to get something over their heads or to put their arms back to get into something that's front-opened," says the 50-year-old, who estimates her sales will be $1.5 million to $2 million this year--a 10 percent increase over 2003.

Keep in mind, men and women shop differently, says Ruhlander: "Men tend to be more practical--they want basic colors. Women love to shop, even via catalog, no matter what age they are; and they love to feel good in their clothes."

As for tomorrow's seniors, or today's boomers, Ann A. Fishman cites women's clothing chain Chico's as a retailer successfully marketing to boomer women. "[The] clothes have elastic waists; come in sizes 1, 2 and 3 [not small, medium and large]; and salespeople are trained in four body types and how to dress them properly," says Fishman, president of market research consulting firm Generational-Targeted Marketing Corp. in New Orleans and an adjunct professor at New York University's The Center for Marketing. "Plus, [they offer] tons of discounts."

Being sensitive to changing bodies and women's affinity for products that make them feel good about themselves is key, notes Henry at Vista Del Sol Health Care Services: "You have to make it OK not to be 19 or 20 and thin," she says. "You have to make aging feel good."

Senior Transportation

The challenge in the senior transportation business, experts agree, is finding ways to provide seniors who can no longer drive with the ability to get where they want to be--and get there in style. Losing the ability to drive can be devastating, but entrepreneurs who find ways to make the ride enjoyable will cash in.

"When someone [can't drive], you take their world away," says Stella Henry. "There's a huge market for coming up with solutions to this problem. When this life-altering experience happens, how are you going to help them?"

Thus far, the options for seniors have been slim, with transportation generally coming in the form of an impersonal ride in the back of a van provided by a senior center or a community-based service. Neil Lichtman predicts, however, the emergence of various individual and pooled transportation alternatives that make for a pleasant ride. For the wealthiest seniors, "specially outfitted limos could replace the local taxi," says Lichtman, managing director of Maddock Douglas , an Elmhurst, Illinois, advertising agency that specializes in new product development and launch. "For [seniors] who cluster in small towns or parts of cities, special jitneys would emerge"-that is, small buses that would transport passengers on a flexible schedule.

The need for transportation services is certainly there, agrees Generational-Targeted Marketing's Fishman, particularly if you don't limit your service to daytime activities. "Car services that pick you up, drop you off and return you--after a party, a dinner, the symphony--are great for entrepreneurial endeavors," she says. "This group is still as active as it can be."

Senior Concierge

Here's another business idea where you're only limited by your imagination. A concierge service for seniors could both provide escorted transportation and bring services into the home, depending on what the client requests. Think beautician services, dry cleaning, mobile vets, domestic help--again, anything that makes seniors' lives easier and also makes use of their disposable income.

"Many people of this age need their errands run, groceries picked up, laundry and tailoring taken care of. Just imagine if you couldn't drive--what would you need done for yourself?" says Fishman. "Some are without family nearby, and although they don't need companions, it's nice to have someone take you to the doctor and wait for you."

That's just what Dick Padgett had in mind when he started Five Star Concierge . Though a small one-man operation, the San Diego company represents the kind of seed-stage opportunity set to explode within the next decade. "The senior market needs a reliable source of transportation and care," says Padgett, 54, who offers escorted transportation, personal shopping and errands, technical consulting and training, handyman services and more. "They need someone they can call who is dependable and honest. I am the substitute son."

Adult Day Care

>Representing another idea still in its formative stages, adult day care is more often than not a service provided by existing senior communities. That's the case with Jonathan Howard's Charlotte, North Carolina-based Resources for Senior Living , a group of senior living communities that added adult day care at its communities in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2003.

"The primary purpose of adult day care is to provide caregivers, who are usually the spouse or an adult child, with relief," says Howard, 49, who projects overall revenues of $30 million for 2004, of which a small fraction is attributable to adult day care. "Knowing their loved ones are in a safe, stimulating place for the day, caregivers can run errands and even enjoy a little free time."

The rise in adult day-care services is a sign of the times, says Howard:. "This area is growing rapidly because as the population ages, other trends--such as two-career households, smaller families and adult children living far from their parents--are putting even more pressure on caregivers' time and energy."

What's more, adult day care offers seniors the ability to socialize with their peers and engage in activities that they might not otherwise have an opportunity to do. Offering a twist on the idea of getting seniors out of the house, Los Angeles entrepreneur Gregg Steiner came up with 866-8EL-DERS, a Los Angeles company that was set to launch at press time. The company will offer field trips, day care and entertainment for seniors who either live in a senior facility or live at home but can't drive. "[Seniors may be] stuck in a horrible environment with no means to get out and no access to any culture or real entertainment," says Steiner, 34. "Their children don't have the time to visit enough, let alone take them out for a half-day each week to be entertained somewhere."

Tech Training

Surfing isn't just for young whippersnappers: The percentage of seniors online jumped by 47 percent between 2000 and 2004--that's 22 percent of 65-plusers--according to a 2004 Pew Internet & American Life Project study.

And while 22 percent isn't bad, it's not enough for people like Don Dinnerville, who offers one-on-one computer coaching via his Dallas-based Well Don, founded in 2002. About one-third of his coaching is with seniors, most of whom know of Well Don through taking one of Dinnerville's computer classes at nearby Richland College.

Why the interest in high tech? "Seniors long to maintain their independence in as many areas of life as possible," says 33-year-old Dinnerville, who just recently began tracking his sales. "The first day of each of my classes, I ask my students why they're [there]. I often hear, 'I want to stop calling my son, daughter and grandkids every time I have a question about my computer.'"

Helping seniors feel successful is key to luring the other 78 percent of seniors who, due to lack of access, lack of skills or intimidation, have yet to make use of Internet technology. Says Tobey Gordon Dichter, who offers a free online tutorial in basic skills like Internet and e-mail use via her nonprofit, Philadelphia-based Generations on Line , available at more than a thousand sites in 46 states: "These services are critical to help seniors who have been left off the information [super]highway."

Online Dating

Tech-savvy seniors aren't stopping at e-mail: Online dating is getting its share of attention, too. It didn't take long after founding Friend Finder Inc. in 1996 for Andrew Conru to realize that adding a senior component to his personals website was "a natural"--and in 1998, there came SeniorFriendFinder.com .

Seeking everything from companionship to relationships, the 600,000-plus members of SeniorFriendFinder--and "a lot of money" spent on advertising--help Conru stay competitive. "You need at least 100,000 people actively using your site to compete," says Conru.

You'll also need around $10,000 to $20,000 in hardware, says Conru, and it couldn't hurt to get some investor money. "But another solution is co-brands," says the Palo Alto, California, entrepreneur. "You get a domain you like, and SeniorFriendFinder will create it, using [our] members as the back end."

Providing traditional matchmaking services is another option. Carol Morgan started her Boca Raton, Florida, matchmaking service, HeartHunters Inc., in 1988 after successfully playing matchmaker for her elderly widowed father. She's since tripled her sales volume. "Seniors, like the rest of society, are seeking a comfortable way to rediscover love," says the entrepreneur. "The concept of a matchmaking service, run professionally and personally dedicated to their individual needs, is a welcome service to them."

Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer in Southern California.

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