Partners against time

Neither downsizing nor early retirement bother Peter Cook. In fact, his business is booming because of the so-called corporate calamity of the last decade. Cook is the canny entrepreneur who 12 years ago started Seniors for Seniors, using part time employees, 50 and older, to help other seniors who were finding it difficult to cope with some aspect of daily life. Cook credits his 79 year old mother, Ellen, with the inspiration for the business. Many of her friends, she mused one day, were in good health and wanted to keep active and involved. In short, they were bored to tears. "I knew there were a lot of older seniors who weren’t sick but merely needed help," says Cook. "Why couldn’t I have "junior" seniors lending a hand?"

He’s not in the business of providing expert care for the bed bound or for Alzheimer’s patients. His clientele, he explains, are simply "of an age." "They’re suffering the ravages of time. They just want someone to clean their house and ferry them around for instance, a lot of them no longer drive and need someone to take them to doctors’ appointments or to the drugstore. I’d say our average client is 85, but ourldest is 103 and a half."

On the service side, the average age of Cook’s employees, the junior seniors, is 65. But one 81-year old, a former caterer, has a "gig" where she lives in four days a week, working for a woman only five years older. "She makes $325 a week," chuckles Cook, "and both have a ball." Clients prefer the familiarity of their own homes and feel at ease with someone closer to their own age. "Generally speaking," says Cook, "it tends to be a long term relationship. We lose our clients to two situations death or nursing homes."

"My mother craves having someone there, and really enjoys it," says Rob Stitt, "but she would never have admitted she was lonely." Hiring a companion for his 85-year-old mother Irene resolved what he felt was becoming a desperate situation. Widowed for four years, Irene was increasingly unhappy in her apartment, part of a complex catering to active seniors. Physically healthy but introverted, she avoided social activities. Life had centred around her husband and she hadn’t cultivated outside interests to lure her from home.

Coping with the demands of their own busy life, Stitt and his wife were only able to spend Sundays with his mother, doing paperwork and catching up on chores. They worried when she wasn’t eating the food they brought and became even more concerned when Irene quit going to the building’s common dining room.

"That’s when I decided we were in trouble as a family," says Stitt. "and called Seniors for Seniors . . . It’s been absolutely wonderful. The change in my mother has been really dramatic," he says.

Doris, his mother’s companion, looks and acts younger than her early 70s. "She’s only been a widow for just over a year, but she’s got a great mental attitude," Stitt notes. "She refuses to stay home cooped up."

Spending five days a week with Irene, Doris handles various errands, dusts, takes care of the laundry, in general keeps Irene on track. More importantly, she prepares two meals a day and makes sure her employer enjoys them. "The main attribute," says Stitt, "is simply having somebody there, keeping her company. It’s helped her mentally and it’s reduced the stress level for all of us."

Peter Cook sees the increasing pool of junior seniors as an under utilized resource. Junior seniors work as drop in or live in companions, cleaners, drivers and handypersons. Still others provide plumbing, electrical or even hair styling skills.

Occasionally the duties can be surprising. One woman, blind for years, had her companion driver take her to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, where she enjoyed the sounds and smells and the memories. And one 96 year old great grandmother didn’t want to miss her great granddaughter’s wedding. She had her Seniors for Seniors driver, aged 80, pick her up, escort her to the wedding and drive her home, tired but very fulfilled.

Another woman in her late 80s wanted to spend the summer at her beloved cottage, though her family feared for her safety. A nearby Seniors for Seniors employee, a nurse, agreed to live in, six-days- a-week throughout the summer, resolving the problem to everyone’s satisfaction.

There’s no shortage of workers. "We get 200 to 300 calls a week," Cook says. "It’s a win win win operation. We have an honorable business and employ people who by and large are unemployable simply because of their age, helping people who want to stay in their own homes."

And clients are sufficiently affluent to afford the fees: $12.95 per hour, for a three-hour minimum for a drop in worker; live in companions cost $460 for a four-day week. "We invoice once a week," says Cook, "and seniors, just as soon as they get a bill, write out a cheque."

Potential employees must pass muster, not only with Cook, but with his assistant, 71-year old Mabel Holden. "We rate them on a scale of 30 — but in fact, Mabel never gives them a 30," he chuckles. Their rating is based on demeanour, experience and social skills. Caregiving experience, or volunteer work, is important. "My yardstick is ‘Would I send this person to my own mother?’" says Cook. "There’s so much first-rate talent looking for work, people who want to keep busy — but can’t find the opportunity. Quite frankly, we can pretty well pick and choose."

The Toronto-based company now has franchises in Mississauga, Hamilton, St. Catharines, Kitchener and Oshawa. Beyond Ontario, there are offices in Halifax and Montreal. He’d love to open in Vancouver, with the right franchisee — someone at least 50 years old, who has some empathy with seniors and has about $75,000 to invest. And the age requirement is important, he notes, "After all, you shouldn’t go on a TV show or be written up in an article if you’re not even old enough to work for your own company."