By Ryan Wynne
Steve Sample is almost 80 and is a self-proclaimed curmudgeon, but his wife, Brenda, has a gentler word for it.
“He’s a real introvert,” she said.
Simply put, Steve likes to stay home and can usually be found in his woodworking shop or sitting in front of the 28-inch monitor of his iMac wearing bulky headphones and arranging music.
Brenda is the opposite.
“She’s a real people person,” Steve said.
Brenda, who’s about 20 years younger than her husband, is often out and about. She meets for regular bridge games, is politically involved, likes to help friends who might need a letter written or who need help finding an attorney — she used to work for the Alabama Bar Institute before retiring.
Steve and Brenda may be retired, but they are far from inactive, and that’s what makes them exactly the type of retirees businesses and organizations are beginning to prepare for.
Senior population sees unprecedented growth
It’s no surprise businesses would want to appeal to the coming wave of retirees, because that wave will be more like a tsunami. Between 2006 and 2030, the senior population in Washington state is expected to double, according to the 2006 Washington State Plan on Aging.
Hart Hodges, director of Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research, said there is no question the number of retirees will boom with the boomers, but the important factor is whether Whatcom County will experience a bigger boom than other communities.
“You can say ‘Look, everybody’s getting older,’” Hodges said.
The retirement population is growing in Whatcom County, Hodges said, but not as impressively as in Clallam or Jefferson counties. Still, he said, Whatcom County businesses will be affected by retirement-sector growth.
“Demographic changes will have some pretty pronounced effects on our economy,” Hodges said.
He said retirees lead to job creation in a variety of areas such as health care, food service, recreation, arts and entertainment, tourism and financial planning.
If a recent batch of Bellingham business registrations is any indication, entrepreneurs are beginning to see potential in this market — at least two out of 39 of those registrations were for retirement-focused businesses.
Some local organizations are also starting to see the need for more retirement-related businesses, especially for those that create models to meet the wants and needs of a different, more active generation of retirees.
Brenda supports creation of a new model, especially in the realm of retirement housing. She said some work will need to be done to make housing options better suited for the baby boomer population, which is a vital and active group.
“I would hope that there would be some innovation in their [housing] options,” she said.
Well Brenda, your wish is the private sector’s command.
Retirement housing gets a remodel
The Bellingham-based Innovation Resource Center (IRC), which is a product of the Northwest Economic Council, was recently formed to help identify sectors where there are markets for innovation and connect innovative startup businesses to resources that will help them thrive in those markets. The center identified the retirement industry as a potential source for job creation.
“It’s a major growing industry segment for our area,” said Diane Kamionka, strategic adviser for the center. “There isn’t anyone in our area that’s focusing on that industry as an industry.”
As part of the IRC’s focus on the industry, it recently partnered with the Whatcom Opportunities Regional Center (WORC), a locally owned, government-designated regional center. That designation allows the WORC to receive foreign investments and invest it in new business ventures that eventually show a significant economic impact and create jobs in the county. In return for their money, investors are able to apply for green cards.
The WORC is trying to create that significant economic impact by investing in areas that appeal to the 55-plus community. The organization is in the process of either building or planning three retirement communities in Whatcom County but its model depends on some help from the IRC.
This is how it works: The WORC determines the needs of the retirement population, and then the IRC finds entrepreneurs to fill those needs and primes them, getting them ready to head out on their own. Once ready, the entrepreneurs receive a sort of “stamp of approval” from both organizations and the WORC puts them on a list of preferred vendors, which is provided to residents in its retirement communities. As long as demand is there, the new business owners end up with new clients from the get-go.
Kathryn Shepherd, vice president of senior lifestyle services for the WORC, said seniors definitely do create a demand, especially in the care industry. There are about five levels of care, she said.
The first level involves help with transitions, such as moving. The second level involves concierge-style services, such as meal and party preparation assistance. Level three is home care and includes help with bathing, getting out of bed and getting dressed. The fourth level is home health and the fifth is hospice care.
Within each of those categories is a lot of potential jobs, Shepherd said, from window washing and cooking to on-site exercise and health care.
“As that segment grows in magnitude, so do the services and needs,” she said.
And as that segment shifts its wants, the business community responds. At least that has been the case with the WORC, which is using a business model for its retirement communities that is intended to appeal to a broad array of residents, including the growing segment of active retirees.
“It’s not only the growing population,” Kamionka said. “It’s the growing interests of individuals.”
The IRC and WORC are not taking on the task of preparing Whatcom County for more retirees alone. They are working with Western Washington University, Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College to get future entrepreneurs more of the guidance they need while they are still in school.
In addition to determining how to better prepare students for the growing retirement market, these schools are also trying to figure out how to help the older students who are looking for later-in-life career changes.
“Retirement is no longer ‘I finished working, yippee.’ It’s ‘I want to do something different,’” Hodges said. “Some of these folks are going to want to work just because they are interested in it. Some are going to have to work.”
Patricia McKeowin, interim president of the technical college echoed that point with statistics. She said the average age of students at the school is 30, with students from their early 20s to those in their 60s.
“I think people want to work a little longer in some cases,” McKeowin said.
And in some cases, they have to, Hodges from Western said. Some work because they need or want medical benefits and others because they need the income. Either way, he said, communities and businesses will be most successful if they figure out how to use those very experienced and often highly skilled workers.
Is Whatcom County ready?
Other areas of business will also need some tweaking. Shepherd said Whatcom County does have a lot of retirement-related businesses, but it could use more. She said seniors are moving here and aging here, which is increasing demand for services and more demand would stretch current services, she said.
“Why people move here? That’s pretty obvious,” Shepherd said.
There are a number of medical facilities close by, and because of the mountains and water, the scenery is outstanding and there is a lot to offer in terms of lifestyle, Shepherd said. On top of that, the weather is ideal for seniors.
While Hodges said senior population growth is happening and will continue to happen, he doesn’t think Whatcom County will see the huge influx of seniors everyone is talking about. Bellingham is not becoming a retirement community, he said.
The growth of the retirement population in this area is still being debated, but one thing seems pretty certain: As retirees work longer, play harder and stay generally more involved than their predecessors, the face of retirement is changing.