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Trials and Tribulations of an Aging Entrepreneur: When You Realize You Can’t Do It All Anymore

Saturdays are the busiest day at our retail shop, especially during the summer tourist months along the Blue Ridge Parkway. And this was the last weekend in July, absolute peak season, so we were expecting quite a crowd.

My husband Tim and I were up early to get ready for our hectic day, and just about to make our first big decision of the morning: what to have for breakfast. On especially busy retail days like Saturdays we always have a ‘hearty’ breakfast, because we don’t expect to be able to have lunch at a regular time, if at all..

Tim is our cook, and frankly, I was a little irritated he wasn’t in the kitchen preparing breakfast like he should.

Doesn’t he know what time it is? He should’ve started cooking 15 minutes ago if we’re going to open the shop on time. I need to get him moving…I guess I’ll ask him what our morning menu is…

But then Tim said he didn’t feel well.

I asked what was going on, expecting him to accuse one of the usual suspects of causing this morning’s complaint, like not sleeping well the night before due to acid reflux or having a muscle cramp from standing too many hours on his tired, aching feet the day before.

But instead he said he was dizzy and had a headache. That his chest and upper arms felt tight. No pain, just tight.

I turned to see Tim still sitting in his recliner, staring straight ahead with a puzzled expression on his face, his eyebrows all scrunched up like you do when you can’t quite figure something out. He rarely ever gets a headache and certainly doesn’t complain of dizziness.

So today wasn’t going to be like any other Saturday.

We were headed to the Emergency Room.

We need to text Paula and tell her not to come in… Obviously Tim’s not going to be making soap today. I don’t think we’ve ever canceled on her in the eleven years she’s been with us…Why isn’t her number on MY cell phone? I should have all our employees’ contact information, especially for situations like this…I guess I’ll ask Tim to text her and I’ll get it off his phone later…

As Tim texted his soap making assistant, I realized we needed to put a note on the front door of the retail shop to explain to our customers why we weren’t open. We had no employees we could call in to cover the shop for us, no one trained to process credit cards or payment at the cash register. Certainly no one knowledgeable enough to answer customer questions about our 130 different soap varieties.

I can’t say in this note that we’re at the ER…That will be too shocking for the customers who’ve been with us for years… First timers will see the closed sign from the parking lot and probably not even come up to the door to read the note…so they’re likely to leave angry that they came all the way out of their way for nothing, because those ‘lazy hillbillies’ couldn’t bother to be open when their website and brochure said they would be…

I chose to say we were sorry, had a doctor’s appointment, and expected to have the shop open by 2:00 that afternoon. That didn’t sound too dire.

I drove up to the ER’s main entrance and walked Tim in. We were the only patients there, and with symptoms like a headache, dizziness, and a tight chest and arms, there was no game of 20 questions played or waiting room delay. In less than 90 seconds,Tim was escorted back to a treatment room.

I stayed behind to provide the Admissions clerk with Tim’s Medicare card and helped her find his file in the hospital records. It’d been more than ten years since he’d needed any kind of inpatient or outpatient care at the hospital, so his file had been archived.

“What’s his birthdate?” the young clerk asked, and I rattled off his details.

“He’s 71,” I added, watching her trying to do the math in her head to type his age into his file and realizing that most of us aging baby boomers could do that easily.

The ten minutes it took for me to handle admissions procedures meant by the time I walked into his treatment room, four hospital staff were in full response mode as they would be for a possible stroke or heart attack victim. Tim was wired up for blood pressure and cardio monitoring, with a lot of irregular patterned beeps indicating something wasn’t right.

Where is his will? I know where mine is…but where’s his? I certainly can’t ask him about it NOW…I know I get immediate access to all the business accounts if the worst happens…but how can I manage the business without Tim doing his work every day? He’s the public face of our business…how does our kind of business go on without its co-Founder?

I glanced up at the blood pressure display, and saw both upper and lower numbers changing erratically. When they held stable long enough for my eyes to lock onto them, I saw 212 over 142. I may have no medical training, but I was weaned on Marcus Welby, Medical Center and Dr. Kildaire. I knew those numbers weren’t good news for us.

I watched as the nurse drew so much blood. If Tim hadn’t been dizzy when he got there, he would certainly be now.

Even if Tim’s able to get out of the hospital today, he won’t be able to work. He’ll need to rest and regenerate all those red blood cells… so I’ll have to cover the retail shop myself today. Will I need to change his work schedule so he can nap every afternoon? I wonder if I can help Paula learn to make soap by herself…

 The constant traffic of hospital staff was impressive, as each staff member in quick succession hauled in equipment carts to conduct their particular tests. Echocardiogram, x-rays, and everything portable brought to the patient, no more being wheeled on a gurney through endless tunnels of hospital hallways. This is what happens when you don’t need to go to a hospital but every decade or so. You’re amazed by the changes.

The room traffic slowed down to a nurse check every 15 minutes or so, and a doctor stopped by to glance at the blood pressure numbers every half hour. By noon we both wished we’d been able to eat breakfast.

Finally the ER doctor brought the good news: no test showed a problem of any kind.

Tim’s blood pressure was still high, but had come down about 30 points while we were there. We were told he needed to see our family doctor sometime next week, but would be released without any kind of medication for blood pressure. He hadn’t received any during this ER stay either, which we found irritating. Instead, the doctor provided a prescription for sublingual Nitroglycerin in case Tim had chest pain, and suggested we get that filled immediately. How reassuring.

I brought the car up to the door so Tim didn’t have far to walk. On the drive home, we decided not to tell Tim’s kids about his ER visit, since apparently we wouldn’t know what was going on until we saw his doctor and the cardiologist.

At least we’re going to be able to open the shop by 2:00 pm like I’d said on the sign for the door. A photo finish, but still there by 2:00, true to our word…

Tim didn’t want to go inside or lay down when we got home. He walked in the garden and then sat quietly and watched the birds from the front porch, trying to absorb the events of the day.

Saturday resumed its usual pace at our retail shop as I flipped the open sign and the first car drove up. And as expected, we had customers mention in an accusatory voice that they’d attempted to shop earlier. Others just expressed their relief or gratitude when they walked in the door, saying, “I’m so glad you’re here this afternoon, I thought I was going to have to leave the mountains without my soap!” which made both Tim and I smile.

One couple who’d been shopping with us 15 years said they couldn’t leave town before finding out if we were okay. They knew we wouldn’t choose to close on a Saturday during tourist prime time in the Blue Ridge for anything trivial. We were quite touched by their thoughtfulness.

Then, once they saw Tim was ‘okay’, they started filling their baskets to make sure they had a good stash for a few months. Apparently they always worry about when we’ll stop making soap. And then what would they do?

We routinely talk with our long time baby boomer customers about their aging and health matters, sympathizing about their latest surgeries and challenges. But talking about Tim’s health had business implications because it evoked their concern we might not be making soap forever.

Wow, we’ve got to be very careful talking about our own aging and health, we don’t want to alarm our customers. Buying from other suppliers is obviously something I don’t want them to even THINK about doing. Where are the scissors so I can cut Tim’s hospital ID bracelet off his wrist so the rest of the customers this afternoon don’t see it…

 As I continued to check out customers, I thought about the coming weeks of appointments with our doctor, cardiologist, a nutritionist and others that might come later, and I was hit with all the ‘not knowing.’

What are we going to do? Or more specifically, what am *I* going to do? Is Tim going to be able to continue to make or cut soap? I can’t do it anymore because of my hand injuries from the early years of cutting it all myself, so I’ll need to find and hire someone to help me. I hope Tim will feel well enough to make video demonstrations of his procedures I can use if I have to train someone myself…

As aging entrepreneurs we need younger bodies to help us manage the twelve tons of soap we make each year, to pack the thousands of orders we ship. But the 48% illiteracy level in our Appalachian county haunts us at every turn. Most applicants are unable to read the names of soaps on the drying racks; or understand enough math to read pounds and ounces on a shipping scale or degrees on a thermometer to monitor heating of oils as we make soap.

Over the years we’d actually scaled down our business to find a sales volume that provided a livable income and let us function well with just ourselves, two loyal, part time employees, and seasonal help hired for Christmas season. Stability was key. No ongoing headaches with finding, training and supervising employees to help us keep up with chaotic levels of production.

Scaling down had been our primary aging strategy, maintaining this precarious balance, which was based on the assumption that everything about our health and lives would remain stable, and that Tim and I could continue to do our respective tasks without limits.

So much for that strategy.

Scaling down meant we had no back ups in place if things went wrong.

Let’s make our appointments with the doctor and nutritionist for 3:00pm or 4:00pm so we’ll only have to close the shop for a couple afternoons. Let’s aim for Wednesday or Friday because they’re the slowest… But since the cardiologist is over an hour away in Asheville, we’ll need to close the shop for a full day. Let’s see if we can get a Wednesday appointment when we’ll inconvenience the fewest customers…

And when this round of medical appointments is over, I need to find someone who can cover the shop so we don’t have to close. Tim’s the shopkeeper…I can’t do everything else and cover the shop, too…

After all the various bills came in, Tim’s four hour ER visit was $7,300.00. And as most families in our predicament say at this point, “Thank you, Medicare, and Medicare Advantage.”

Our immediate worries appeared to be over because Tim’s health stabilized. We were fortunate in that all we had was a wake up call, not a devastating event, and my aging entrepreneur could continue working.

But what do we need to do differently now?

Are you an aging entrepreneur? What would you do?

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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