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The Reinvention Business

Workshops and coaches are emerging to help older adults get a grip on what really works after work.

Like many people, Maine resident Brenda Dow, 65, thought of life after work as something she would simply slip into like a comfortable pair of shoes, filled with lots of travel to warm, sunny places.

But those idyllic thoughts changed when she retired in 2006 after nearly three decades in the interior design business, including 19 years running her own company in Presque Isle. After years of working and serving on various nonprofit boards, she retreated from those activities and “my life started to change,” Dow says. She felt slightly off balance by her new identity and wasn’t sure of “who I was or who I was going to be.”

Like Dow, many future and current retirees are finding they need more than just financial counseling to get the most from their post-work life—or to prepare for a second career. In response to that need, firms and coaches are materializing to fill the void.

The reinvention business

The business of assisting individuals in reinventing themselves beyond retirement is going to be huge, says Michael Dowd, 51, a board member for Discovering What’s Next, a Newton, Mass., nonprofit that gives boomers free advice on charting a path after retirement. “It just seems to be steadily gaining momentum.”

And, given that the first wave of the nation’s 78 million boomers are due to turn 65 in 2011, it shouldn’t be slowing down anytime soon. Many boomers are leaving the workplace to take early retirement at 62. The Social Security Administration reports that applications for retiree benefits are already up 7 percent from the predicted 15 percent increase this fiscal year.

Coaching and workshops

Many soon-to-be retirees could be like Brenda Dow and tap into the retirement coach trend. In her search for guidance in her new life, Dow turned to Life Change Arts, the brainchild of Nancy Fernandez Mills, a health counselor and yoga instructor who started the business last year with artist Fred Mandell.

“We create experiential workshops and retreats and vacations for people, to give them skills that will help them navigate all the different things that are going to happen in their lives,” says Fernandez Mills, 61. “My passion is to help people age in a healthy, happy and creative way.”

Dow traveled to a 380-acre resort in Northport, Maine, where Life Change Arts has held three-day workshops. She participated in groups ranging from a handful of people to as many as 20, and in activities that included group discussions, yoga and meditation, and creating art collages. The average age of the other participants was about 55 to 60. “I felt that I was being unwrapped—that there was sort of a cocoon around me, and as I participated and did all of these things we were asked to do, who I was was being revealed,” Dow says.

Boomer boot camp

Helping participants develop a strong sense of self is the focus of Lin Schreiber, who created Revolutionize Retirement, an eight-year-old business in Stockbridge, Mass., that offers the program Boomer Boot Camp: Design a Remarkable Rest of Your Life. The group specializes in many programs, including working with 50- to 60-plus-year-old women who either want to, or have to, continue working, says Schreiber, 60, a former TV producer. The business exploded a year ago. “It’s just gone off the charts,” she says.

The weekend boot camps are held in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains. The overall objective “is to take a good hard look inside and create what’s next based on who we really are, and what we really want to be doing,” Schreiber says.

Boomers tend to have notions about retirement that are different from previous generations, says Judy Goggin of Civic Ventures, an 11-year-old nonprofit think tank in San Francisco focusing on boomers, work and social purpose.

“They’re not ready to retire in the traditional way,” she says. “In some cases, they want to shift to a different kind of work—to work that provides income but brings meaning to their lives and has a social impact,” she says.

Testing a new job

In Portland, Ore., VocationVacations is heavily skewed toward helping individuals reinvent themselves professionally. Brian Kurth, 43, launched the business in 2004 after he was laid off at a dot-com firm.

VocationVacations exposes clients to more than 170 new occupations using a combination of coaching sessions and direct mentorships, says Kurth, who estimates that 20 percent of his clientele are retirement age. They are typically interested in pursuing culinary arts, writing or working with animals in some capacity, and many want to transfer skills learned in corporate America to a nonprofit setting.

“The retirees that we’re getting now are determining that they have to go back to work, and they want to at least make sure that what they do is fun,” Kurth says.

The program attracts people like Sue Anderson, 62, a Mendota, Ill., resident and information technology coordinator at a university, who is thinking about retiring in three years. She took advantage of a VocationVacations weekend to sample her dream post-retirement job—private investigator.

“I was in heaven,” Anderson says of her brief immersion into the private investigation business with two female private eyes. “When I retire, I’d like to go into elder advocacy and go after people who have taken advantage of older people.”

Back in Maine, Brenda Dow says that with the help of her coaching program she, too, has found that there’s more to retirement than travel, rest and relaxation.

“It’s important for me to be important to other people,” says Dow, who now teaches adults how to read. “I’m not going through life because I’m seeking personal happiness; I’m going through life to see what I can do to make a difference in other lives.”

Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.

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