Photo by Craig Bares
Cofounder Joel Theisen wanted to create a firm that helps seniors see life options beyond a nursing home.
Getting Seniors to Think Ahead
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While working for a large national home-care company in the ’90s, registered nurse Joel Theisen decided there was a better way to help seniors thrive. His growing frustration with what he considered the wait-till-it’s broken-then-fix-it mentality of the health care industry only added to his resolve. In 2004, Theisen raised seed money from family and friends to launch Edina-based AgeWell Home Care, a company devoted to keeping seniors healthy and living independently.
“I felt strongly that we had to start working with our senior population with more of a preventive, planning model that included not just the medical piece but also psychosocial aspects of service,” says Theisen, who cofounded AgeWell with Carole Overby and Beth Nemec. (Overby, the company’s director of operations, works mostly remotely, from California; Nemec is the general manager.) “Current models of care were not delivering the kind of value and outcomes that I wanted to see and that my parents and grandparents wanted to see.”
Most companies that provide services to seniors, Theisen asserts, “build very definable need-driven or payer-driven models: ‘If Medicaid pays for that, I can build a business around it.’ What’s different about us is that our model is built on a platform that isn’t need-driven. It’s about how to create a quality of life.”
AgeWell’s holistic Life Care Management model focuses on seven elements of life, including physical health and well-being, cognitive health, social support, and finances, as well as the activities and plans a senior wishes to accomplish in his or her life.
After interviewing a senior and his or her family, AgeWell’s team builds a priority list and action plan around these seven elements. AgeWell then brings in services and resources to help the senior live the kind of life he or she wants to live. “Just because you’re old doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun and find a lot to get excited about,” Theisen says.
According to Theisen, most seniors don’t come to AgeWell until a health crisis forces them to. “Our society is more reactive than forward-thinking and planning,” he notes, adding that almost all of AgeWell’s roughly $9 million in annual revenues comes from private-pay or long-term care insurance. “We’re trying to educate seniors and communities to get us involved earlier so we can put a plan in place before a crisis hits. That will help them maintain a higher quality of life instead of being subjected to the rollercoaster phenomenon where there’s a crisis, the family rushes in, the system fixes them, they plateau for a while, and then they drop down into another crisis.”
More and more seniors have been willing to pay privately for AgeWell’s services because its life care managers, who help seniors meet the goals set around the seven elements, aren’t only working with them to maintain a better quality of life—they are helping them avoid spending more money in the long run on costly options such as nursing homes. “We believe that the best retirement home for most folks is their own home, to live wherever home is as long as possible,” Theisen says.
To raise awareness, AgeWell spent $250,000 to create a Navigation Kit that encourages seniors and their families to explore and discuss the seven elements of AgeWell’s Life Care Management plan. The kits, which are distributed free of charge, ask questions designed to give seniors greater control over their future years. They include materials from AARP as well as local organizations like the Minnesota HomeCare Association and Aging Services of Minnesota.
“AARP contributed materials to the kit because they felt it was a great proactive measure to help educate seniors and their families about planning,” Theisen notes. “We’ve only had the kit out for a few months, and it’s been exciting to hear the response from not only the health care community but from families and the community at large.”
While AgeWell’s revenues have enjoyed double-digit growth every year, Theisen’s big-picture vision goes beyond the company’s balance sheet: “Our goal is to break the crisis cycle and be a catalyst for change in how we care for seniors—not only here in Minnesota but across the country.”
With the number of seniors age 85 and older projected to quadruple over the next 30 years, Theisen wants to shift the health care paradigm to focus on preventive, long-term life care management. “Ultimately, we want to be a repository of the best information in the market as well as a trusted advisor that seniors and their families can come to, whether they need home care or transportation or meals or social activities,” he says. “Seniors need somebody to help them understand the system and be an advocate for them within the system. We meet seniors on their terms and come at it from their priorities and not ours.”