Got a heart, and a good head for numbers?

Date: AUG 21st, 2007

Topic: Franchise News

Special to The Globe and Mail

Gail Watson's life changed in an instant one day four years ago when she got the call telling her that her mother's Alzheimer's disease had progressed to the point that she was displaying psychotic behaviour.

Recalled from the first day of a family vacation, Ms. Watson suddenly had to divide her time between her mother and everything else, including caring for two young children and keeping up with a demanding job in Web-based education. Within four months, the North Vancouver resident went from a celebrated place in her company's "president's club" to being fired because of slipping numbers.

Since she tapped into a local small-business, however, things have changed. The company, Nurse Next Door, provides care for her 81-year-old mother, Catherine Walker, who has been able to stay in her own Burnaby home. With the aid of her husband, Archie, 84, she is made comfortable with meals and cleaning, personal hygiene and companionship, for about what it would cost to live in a nursing home.

In-home care for seniors is a growing business opportunity for Canadian entrepreneurs looking to not only capitalize on shifting demographics but also make a difference in people's lives, says John DeHart, who with Ken Sim founded Nurse Next Door in 2001.

Their company is opening franchises in British Columbia and plans to move beyond, offering a wide range of care from homemaker services to 24-hour, live-in palliative support.

"It's a new way to deliver health care," says Mr. DeHart, a former investment banker. He and Mr. Sim, whose background is in high tech, started their small business after they each tried to find home care for relatives and became frustrated with the lack of standards in the largely unregulated field.

The two started the business with a couple of cellphones and a handful of part-time caregivers. They have developed it into a franchise that includes a service centre to centralize the staffing, technology and systems required to maintain a round-the-clock, on-call business. Franchisees are able to concentrate on customer service, client contact, caregiver hiring and marketing rather than scheduling and other administrative tasks, which they pay for based on a percentage of their sales.

For small businesses looking to serve the aging population, the figures are enticing. Canadians over 65 now make up about 13 per cent of the population - a figure that is expected to double during the next 20 years, with the fastest growing segment being those older than 85. About half of current health-care spending is related to seniors, yet only 7 per cent of seniors are in nursing homes. The rest live at home.

"Clearly ... we need to start identifying how we're going to be able to afford caring for the aging demographics without pushing the limits of the [health-care] system," Mr. DeHart says. "For people with a heart it's a great business opportunity."

For Gord and Tara Simpson, moving back to their hometown of Kamloops, B.C., and opening a Nurse Next Door franchise was a way to start a business in a burgeoning field while capitalizing on her background as a registered nurse. Ms. Simpson works as one of the service's care managers, while her husband is the franchise owner and director of operations.

Their business has been in great demand - getting calls even before it was fully set up in April - and "we've been working pretty well non-stop to keep up," says Mr. Simpson.

Customers can get help for as little as two hours at a time (at a cost of about $50) for any manner of assistance from a trained staff of 20. Already 20 clients have signed on for regular service.

"We've well exceeded our expectations," says Mr. Simpson, who hopes to expand into communities around Kamloops.

In-home services can prove economical, providing assistance for a couple of hours a day to people who might otherwise have to move to retirement or nursing homes, or seek acute care, to get the help they need, says John Tagenfeldt, a health care consultant in Vancouver.

Their needs can often be met by innovative entrepreneurs. Just straightening out older people's medications and ensuring they are getting enough fluids and food can allow them to live independently and provides a great business model, Mr. Tagenfeldt says.

Older and disabled people living at home are currently cared for 80 per cent of the time by family members and 20 per cent by outside caregivers, says Bill Gleberzon, director of government relations for CARP, Canada's Association for the 50-Plus. But baby boomers are demanding more services for their aging parents, while also looking ahead to the time when they themselves will need care.

"People have expectations and they want service - and they can afford to pay for it," Mr. Gleberzon says.

In Sudbury, Ont., Suzanne Belfry offers a one-stop place for older people to get everything from health care to home maintenance. Most of the clients of her small business, For Seniors Only, are people whose parents are in their mid-70s or older who suffer from severe arthritis or Alzheimer's, or who may simply need help shopping or doing household chores.

Ms. Belfry started the company 11 years ago when she needed help with her mother, then 78. "Anyone doing the math is going to realize that there aren't going to be enough nursing homes for these people," Ms. Belfry says, adding that her clients include people in retirement and nursing homes who need more help and attention than they can get there.

Ms. Belfry has packaged For Seniors Only as a licensed product, with marketing and other materials and business coaching so that others can start similar services. Prices of services range around $20 an hour. For those needing 24-hour, uncomplicated live-in support, For Seniors Only charges a daily flat rate of $204, and largely employs retired women as companions and housekeepers.

Ms. Watson, meanwhile, says that knowing aging relatives are being cared for helps ease the burden on a family. She is grateful she found private care for her mother, and assistance for her father, and only wishes she had arranged it before the situation reached a crisis point.

"The mental and emotional part weighs on you," says Ms. Watson, who is now 40 and runs an independent business with her husband. "It's good to know there's help out there."

Catch the seniors wave

"Aging is the wave of the future," says Bill Gleberzon, and he's got a point for anyone looking to develop or expand a business catering to the country's growing population of seniors. The director of government relations for CARP, Canada's Association for the 50-Plus, notes that by 2030, one in four Canadians will be older than 65. Business areas ripe for growth include:

Insurance

Financial planning

Funeral planning

Travel companies

Movers

Home maintenance

Hearing-aid battery firms

Assistive devices for the home

Specialized clothing companies

Taxi services

Mary Gooderham