What could be a better reason to start a business than to have personally experienced a need that went unfilled? For Maria Cerino, that’s exactly what became the driving force behind her company, Seniors Helping Seniors.
Cerino nods. “My husband had Lou Gehrig’s Disease and had been in a wheelchair for over two years. I had three kids, was working part-time in Hartford and living in Stonington, and I really needed someone to check on my husband during the day,” she says. “These agencies just weren’t around back then.”
After Cerino’s husband passed away, a close co-worker in Hartford suggested that Cerino open a Seniors Helping Seniors franchise. “I later realized that it was something I wanted to do,” says Cerino. “I’ve always enjoyed older people—my grandmother was my role model when I was young.”
Cerino did some research into the business model that had been started by a woman from India who lived here in the U.S. and had noticed that many older people in her neighborhood stayed in their homes and didn’t participate in much activity. Comparing that to the culture in her native home, she came up with the idea of older folks helping other older folks. Cerino loved this idea. “Active folks have so much to offer, and as they age, they can still stay busy and be needed in the community by helping other seniors,” she says.
The Mystic office of Seniors Helping Seniors has been in business for ten years, and Cerino was one of the early franchisees. “I joined this company because I really believe in the business model,” she says. There are about 250 franchises around the country, and a couple of international companies as well. Cerino’s office covers most of New London County.
With a bank of 70 staff members, Cerino’s business can provide clients the option of staying independent at home through a variety of essential non-medical services. Companionship, light housekeeping, meal preparation, transportation, doctor appointments, shopping, yard work, overnight stays, pet care, and personal care are among the services offered. Additionally, there are staffers who will provide 24-hour care, stay overnight, or provide respite care.
“We don’t do nursing,” Cerino explains. “We are registered as a companion and homemaker agency, and the state defines what we can do.”
The most requested service is a three- to four-hour visit three or four times a week. For adult children who don’t live in the area, this service provides some peace of mind. Did mom or dad have breakfast? Take their pills? The companion will often help with chores around the house, maybe do some laundry, buy groceries, or make a meal or two.
“The service provides a regular visitor who has eyes on things and can make decisions,” says Cerino. “Many of our mature work force have actually cared for their own parents, or someone in the family. They just know what to look for.”
Cerino says that there aren’t many calls for overnight services, though they are available for cases where someone’s getting home after rehab and the family can’t come, or stay for long.
How does one become a companion for Seniors Helping Seniors? “Training is always voluntary,” says Cerino. “We have very little mandatory training, but we do track who takes what training, and everyone attends an orientation.” A variety of educational materials are available to prospective helpers, including DVD classes and online resources. Earlier this year, a featured speaker was Donna Fedus, a gerontologist out of New Haven and affiliated with Yale. She is the founder of Borrow My Glasses, a company about training and the older experience. Cerino smiles and says, “Fedus wants people to look through the eyes of the person as they’re aging. Pretty cool.”
For patients with dementia, those who work with them are offered a lot of training. These visits involve a lot of companionship, prompts for taking medication, making sure the person is eating healthy meals (because they may not have an appetite anymore), plus a lot of safety supervision. “The key thing” says Cerino, “is you’re not trying to reorient a confused client to the present. You distract and divert. There are many tips we give to teach the our companions how to make things better for the client.”
“One of the things we do as an agency that’s a little different is we do try to match our companions and caregivers to our clients,” she says. “We let people know that we provide a really good service—high quality and personal. Not the biggest, just really good.”
For more information, visit seniorcaremystic.com or call 860-536-4767.