Gisela Ashley had been a real-estate agent for about 18 years when she decided to take inheritance money from her father and go back to school.
She earned her master's degree just one month shy of her 50th birthday in 2008, entering what she knew was a very difficult job market.
Her age coupled with the recession and limited experience in her new field of recreation programming for seniors should have added up to tough times for Ashley.
Instead, she found success and a job as engage life director for Atria Senior Living in Newburyport, Mass. Atria is one employer actively seeking senior employees, finding them to be "committed, reliable workers," says Anne Pinter, senior vice president for the New England-Upstate New York region for Atria Senior Living.
"We run 24/7 care for frail seniors," Pinter says. "We've got to have committed, reliable workers, and we haven't always been able to find that with younger workers who sometimes may not just show up for work. We need those who can grasp the purpose of what we're trying to do."
Ashley says she was aware that some older job seekers have complained about age discrimination. For that reason, she didn't discuss her age and thinks her more youthful appearance helped.
She also nabbed a couple of internships in her field before graduation, which helped beef up her resume and make her more appealing to employers.
"I actually interned for someone who said she had two bad experiences with previous interns who were in their 20s. She said that I renewed her faith in interns and said she appreciated my maturity and felt she could trust me. With the younger interns, she said she felt she had to watch them all the time," Ashley says.
Pinter says 36 percent of Atria's 9,000 workers are older than 50, and of that number 11 percent are part-timers.
"We offer people the chance for full-time careers if they want, but we also have hours for those who don't want to work all the time," she says. "We have a lot of different work."
While seniors may not be physically able to do some of the most demanding work such as heavy maintenance, most can handle duties from serving food to working at the receptionist desk, Pinter says.
"No matter what job they do, they give our seniors a great living experience," she says. "Our seniors say that they love connecting with older workers because they're often about the same age as their own children. They can find it a little difficult to initiate a conversation with a 20-year-old."
For her part, Ashley says the senior residents give her an ego boost.
"They think I'm 20," she says, laughing.
In addition, Ashley says she's inspired by her senior staff, including one 75-year-old women "who puts me to shame she has so much energy."
Atria has learned through assessments that employee energy isn't related to age, and "has more to do with personality," Pinter says. "We don't see a lot of limitations to what they (senior staff) can do."
"One of the things we've found is that our employees really drive the experience of our residents," she says. "Happy employees really drive the satisfaction for our residents, and our senior workers just have a happy factor that is contagious."
Ashley says her experience of going back to school was fun and she bonded with many of her younger classmates who referred to her as "Mama Gisela."
"I would say that the key is just putting your best foot forward," she says. "I really do believe the saying that 50 is the new 30. I just said, 'what the heck' and went for it."
This story first appeared in USA Today.