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Retirement Seniors find an unconventional way to supplement retirement income

Brenda Sullivan poses for a photograph in front of the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope, Ont., on Friday, April 19, 2019. (Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail)

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Even if it’s 4 a.m., Brenda Sullivan doesn’t mind the 1½-hour drive between Toronto and Port Hope. That’s because it means she’s been called in to do background work as an extra in a film, a job she’s been doing to augment her modest retirement income.

“I’ve got a thin face and high cheekbones,” laughs Ms. Sullivan, 70. “They love me for the zombie movies.”

Ms. Sullivan used to be a musician in a band. Her husband was forced to retire early due to ill health. “We are generally pension-less,” she says.

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The background work Ms. Sullivan does three or four times a month can bring in $5,000 to $7,000 a year, with work on longer shows bumping that up to $11,000. On set, she receives meals and drinks, and can access a free shuttle to certain film sites. She socializes with many other retirement-aged extras on set. And because she’s a member of an actors’ union, she makes anywhere from $150 to $500 a day.

“When you’re an artist, retirement is not in the vocabulary,” Ms. Sullivan says. “When you get extra jobs, you say, ‘Thank God – there’s the phone bill.’ ”

In a bid to earn money in their retirement years, some older Canadians are finding work in creative areas of the job market, such as acting. According to 2015 figures from Statistics Canada, one in five Canadians aged 65 and older, or nearly 1.1 million seniors, are still working – the highest proportion recorded since the 1981 census – with 4.6 per cent in arts-related occupations. And half of the workers Statscan surveyed said they have to work in order to make ends meet.

Yvonne Heiter, a background talent agent with Toronto-based Y-H Acting Division, has hundreds of seniors on her roster. She says many films being shot in Toronto and British Columbia need older people for a variety of roles. Seniors are in demand as extras in hospital scenes or period pieces, as air force officials or in retirement home scenes.

“I have some guys who play the homeless roles,” she says. “They make thousands.”

Film production volume in the country reached an all-time high of $8.92-billion in 2017-18, according to a report by the Canadian Media Producers Association.

In Vancouver, talent agent Brandi England at Ignite Artists just got off the phone with an actor who is 71. He’s wanting back into the industry after a lengthy hiatus.

“For commercials and TV shows, there are a lot of opportunities for seniors,” she says.

Rona Birenbaum, a financial planner and owner of Caring for Clients in Toronto, says many retirees realize they need more money to maintain their lifestyle, after their income stops at the age of 65. The extra cash would come in handy for things such as dining out or taking long-hoped-for vacations.

“For some, it’s an important source of retirement income,” she says. Best of all, individuals can earn up to $76,000 in extra income before being subject to an Old Age Security clawback.

If a person can make enough income to live off of during their early retirement years and defer collecting Canada Pension Plan (CPP) from 65 until 70, they will receive higher payments. This can actually increase the size of one’s pension by 30 per cent, Ms. Birenbaum says.

For 68-year-old Beth Serednicki, background acting work brings in pocket money. A former medical secretary, she worked for Toronto’s largest hospitals before spending the past decade of her career in a private practice. Now living in Concord, just north of Toronto, she took her pension early.

“I was 65 and I was tired,” she says. But she says increases in the cost of living have left their mark. “It is very expensive to live in [cities like Toronto].”

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Ms. Birenbaum feels working in retirement is wise.

“Stopping hard and retiring is not really a great idea,” she says. “For some people who haven’t prepared financially for retirement to the degree they should have, it can make a huge impact on the quality of their life.

“When we do retirement projections and add in a little bit of income in the first five or seven years of retirement, it really allows them to stretch out their savings.”

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