The only advert that Christian and Sally Wilse ever used for their care service Seniors Helping Seniors appealed to those with “the heart of a volunteer”. It was a clever idea that immediately weeded out anyone applying for the money.
“Applicants thought they were volunteering”, Sally explained to me when I visited her and her husband at their house in Canterbury. “It means you get those who really want to do it for what it is, not the salary”.
In fact “it” is a job that pays its carers £10.65 an hour. Some 150 care providers on the roster have been fully checked and approved to work, with an average of 40 working each month. Client and carer are carefully matched according to personalities, likes, dislikes, interests and chemistry, and clients pay £20.50 an hour.
Since that first advert five years ago, applicants for Seniors Helping Seniors have all come via local word of mouth (and the enterprise has a page on https://www.homecare.co.uk ).
Sixty-seven-year-old grandmother Pat Curtis of Herne Bay took redundancy from the Bank of America eight years ago. When Sally appealed on Facebook for someone willing to devote a few hours a week to knitting with some of her clients, Pat was happy to oblige.
One of six siblings, she has crafting in her DNA and is a member of a knitting group called the Herne Bay Cosy Crew. Since working for Seniors Helping Seniors (a profit for purpose company), Pat has sourced small knitting needles for arthritic hands and says she always arrives at her clients’ houses “casted on”, whether this be for crocheting or knitting.
I accompanied her to see 84-year-old Gladys, who has dementia, at her Faversham home. Pat calls in twice a week for an hour, in between social services visits. When we arrived the TV was blaring in the corner, the remote too far away for Gladys to reach. Unlike usual carers, those from Seniors Helping Seniors don’t wash or dress their clients or dispense medication: their role is that of supportive friend.
When Gladys isn’t up to knitting she holds the wool for Pat, who always makes them both a cup of tea as they sit and reminisce, look through the WI magazine or pot up a few plants. I saw the power of this simple, human interaction as, TV turned off, the two of them chatted about Gladys’ family; Pat skilfully drawing her neatly turned out, grey-haired friend into the conversation as Gladys’ eyes lit up. After each visit Pat messages Gladys’ daughters to let them know how she is.
Watching Pat and Gladys reminded me of my dad’s final years when he lived alone in an apartment originally intended for him and mum. Mum’s dementia was exacerbated when we had to sell the family home and, instead of moving into the new flat, she was admitted to hospital for six weeks before entering a nursing home.
Dad visited her every day as his own health steadily deteriorated. I lived over an hour away by car and my daughter was only seven, so to keep an eye on dad and provide him with company, I set up a coterie of informal carers.
There was 25-year-old Marius, a Polish charity worker (who’d had criminal record checks) and part-time waiter in dad’s favourite local restaurant. My second world war veteran, Europhile dad and this young Pole were a perfect fit: they spoke French together, discussed history and where they might go for their next jaunt in dad’s clapped out old Mercedes (which I insured for Marius to drive).
When I became worried about dad’s diet I enlisted the help of Rosemary, a former pub landlady, who produced delicious lunches in dad’s kitchen which the two of them sat down to eat together. Dad loved nothing more than gossiping over a meal with a glass of red until a series of strokes robbed him of his ability to swallow.
Confined to bed and fed by a tube, dad required specialist help and we employed trained carers, but Marius and Rosemary continued to visit. They had become dad’s friends – an informal equivalent of Seniors Helping Seniors – providing support and human connection for my father in the transitory period before his medical demands became too much.
What Sally and Christian – and their US predecessor – have created in Seniors Helping Seniors (as I did in my own way for dad) is a 21st century paid-for model to take the place of close-knit communities, friends, neighbours and families.
It all began six years ago when, after successful media careers, Christian, then aged 54, and Sally, then 50, were made redundant. The couple decided they wanted to do something worthwhile with the rest of their lives.
Sally saw an advert in an inflight magazine headlined, “Looking for a few ordinary people with extraordinary hearts”. It was promoting Seniors Helping Seniors as a 20-year-old US franchise business. Inspired by the advert, Christian went to meet its founder, an inspirational woman who had worked for Mother Theresa – and in 2012 the idea for a UK version of the original American concept was born.
Sally explained how they sold their house, her husband completed care courses and the couple bought a master licence for the UK from Seniors Helping Seniors in the US.
Their first challenge was to refocus the model for the UK, where people plan ahead for their care far less than in America, where they pay for all their medical provision. The couple have now sold (for £10,000 each) two Seniors Helping Seniors franchises, run by like-minded people to them, in Harrow and Guildford.
Retired boarding school matron Eileen Connell has been working for the Canterbury company for four years. One of her clients, 84-year-old Joan, has dementia and lives alone in her home. Eileen visits Joan daily for two and a half hours. When, last year, Eileen noticed that phone calls from Marion, one of Joan’s old friends, had dwindled, Eileen arranged to drive Joan from Canterbury to visit Marion in Crawley.
“Joan was delighted”, Eileen said. “We all went out to lunch, where the two of them reminisced about shared holidays and adventures while looking at old photos”. Joan’s feeling of wellbeing and happiness remained well after the visit.
Katherine Spencer, who at 53 is one of the younger helpers, has been in the caring profession since she was 16. She joined the company last October because she was impressed by its ethos. “At Seniors Helping Seniors its all about getting it right for the client. It’s flexible work and I feel respected and nurtured as a carer”.
“It’s about trust,” Sally said. “When choosing our carers we see the individual, the person behind the CV and match them with the right client. Families want a fully managed care service where there is always a plan B and flexibility to deal with what life throws out. Carers love that they can work guilt free, not rushing in and out of people’s homes or taking on too much”.
Seniors Helping Seniors wasn’t around for my dad. However, I was lucky: Marius and Rosemary turned out to be honest, decent people. But I won’t forget that heart-in-mouth moment when I entrusted the keys of dad’s apartment to a young Polish man I had interviewed once (albeit having studied his CV and background checks).
Sally and Christian Wilse spotted something good that was happening over the Pond, recognised its strengths, realised it fulfilled a growing need – as far-flung families, greater numbers of working women and increased life expectancy result in too many older people being left to fend for themselves – and decided to replicate it here.
What’s more, they put clients’ needs at the centre of their service and tailor it around them with carefully matched carers rather than creating a one-size-fits-all framework. It’s neat, it’s simple, it works and – best of all – it can be replicated. Let’s hope it is.