RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going to pay a visit now to the Vita Needle Company in Needham, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Nearly half its employees are senior citizens, and they are helping to keep the company in the black.

Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro has this report.

ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: Rows of worktables fill the modest-sized production floor of the Vita Needle Company. A couple dozen workers operate machines that grind and shape an assortment of tiny tubular products things like needles, syringes and wires. It's pretty much the same here as it was in 1932, when Vita Needle got its start 78 years ago. And many of the employees got their start in life even before that - like Rosa Finnegan, who's been at Vita Needle for 13 years.

Ms. ROSA FINNEGAN (Vita Needle Company): I hate to tell you, I'm 98-and-a-half.

SHAPIRO: That half is important.

Ms. FINNEGAN: That's right. I'm trying to make it to 99. I hope I do.

(Soundbite of gauge stamping noise)

SHAPIRO: On this particular day, Finnegan's stamping hundreds of small metal parts that look like pencil erasers. The arthritis is visible in her hands, but the exercise from her job helps keep her fingers reasonably nimble.

Ms. FINNEGAN: I thought retirement with my husband would be nice, but he passed away with a heart attack, so life changed drastically after that. My plans all went astray. I had to make new ones. So this is how I did it.

SHAPIRO: Finnegan works five hours a day, and there's a real community for her here. Vita Needle employs 20 senior citizens part-time on the production floor, and they're all treated very well.

Ms. FINNEGAN: And I can go as fast or as slow as I want. No one pushes me. Makes the time go by.

SHAPIRO: Vita Needle is as competitive as ever, holding onto 10 percent of the market in tubular products. They're projecting $9 million in sales this year.

Frederick Hartman II is the director of marketing and engineering. He's 27, and the youngest member of this family-run business.

Mr. FREDERICK HARTMAN (Director of Marketing and Engineering, Vita Needle Company): There's a sense of pride in the senior citizens, in the work that they do here. Some may not work at a faster pace, but they will produce a quality product.

SHAPIRO: This phenomenon's bigger than Vita Needle. Between 1985 and 2008, the percentage of those working over the age of 65 rose from 11 to 17 percent.

Caitrin Lynch is an associate professor of anthropology at Olin College in Needham.

Professor CAITRIN LYNCH (Anthropology, Olin College): It doesn't make sense for people to retire at 65. The retirement age was established when people didn't live much longer than that. Now people retire and still might have a third of their life to live.

SHAPIRO: Lynch says hiring seniors can make economic sense. Older workers often appreciate flexible hours, and for a business, this means affordable, part-time employment. And companies don't have to provide benefits since Medicare tends to cover the seniors' medical needs. The arrangement also makes good social sense.

Prof. LYNCH: Work is so much more than just a paycheck. I think that Vita Needle's an example of a human desire for connection with others and having a sense of purpose.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SHAPIRO: That's certainly true of Bill Ferson. He's 92, and has been at Vita Needle for over 20 years. The money helps him pay his bills, but there's more to it than that, and it has to do with the people he's met here.

Mr. BILL FERSON (Vita Needle Company): A lot of them are in the same boat I'm in. You're single and, you know, at my age, all my friends are gone. But I get up in the morning, I got some place to go, I got people to meet, and I got something to do.

SHAPIRO: It goes to show that our most productive years may still be ahead -well ahead.

For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro.

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