Care in the comfort of home; franchise grows with expanding senior market

REGION – While many people consider this area a good place to work and raise a family, it's also a place in which many want to "grow old." And a large majority of them prefer to stay in their own homes as long as they're able. Often that means adult children either taking on some caregiving responsibility or hiring someone to give that care.

Longtime area residents Leslie and Russ Knopp are two folks on the frontlines of providing in-home care as owners of the local Comfort Keepers franchise. Comfort Keepers is a worldwide operation with more than 550 independently owned and managed offices. The Knopps started the northern Michigan franchise in May 2005 and got their first client almost immediately. At that time, it was just the Knopps and one caregiver.

"Our strategy was to focus on Traverse City in the beginning," said Leslie, about building the company's reputation and staff. "We grew slow that first year, but that was a deliberate choice."

In its second year the franchise quadrupled in size, said Leslie, as the community learned about its services and through its relationship with the local Commission on Aging and the Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan.

Now in year three, Comfort Keepers has 80 clients, a caregiver staff numbering over 50 and a growth strategy focused on the Petoskey area.

"The demand is getting greater," said Leslie. "People are becoming more aware that this is an option." The home health services industry is relatively young. Just a decade ago, home health services meant a visiting nurse, Leslie said.

Comfort Keepers is not a medical organization and doesn't offer nursing services, unlike most other home health service providers in town. Its caregivers provide assistance with the basic activities of daily living – everything from taking a client to the grocery store, doing housework, assistance with bathing, medication reminders, even simple companionship.

"It's quality of life," Leslie said. "That's what we're about."

The local Comfort Keepers franchise covers virtually all of northwest Michigan, an area where more than 20 percent of the population is over the age of 60, nearly double the state average.

"If our region becomes known as a place where you can get good quality home health care, then that's good," added Leslie.

The Knopps had been doing consulting work for non-profits and associations when they started looking for a business opportunity. After hearing about Comfort Keepers through an acquaintance, it was their personal experience with caring for elderly family members that resonated with the Knopps and they knew they had found what they'd been looking for.

Along with providing quality in-home care, the Knopps also want to see this kind of caregiving recognized as a profession.

"We're trying to raise the level of respect for people giving this care," said Russ. The work attracts a variety of people, Leslie said, and current caregivers include a retired mammographer, a former daycare provider and someone who is currently caring for her own mother.

"Our goal is to provide a good, flexible employment opportunity," she said.

The Knopps said they bought into Comfort Keepers because of its "standards" in the field of home health services, an industry that is currently unregulated. However, the National Private Duty Association – which works to enhance the professionalism of home care providers through education and best practices – is lobbying for legislation recognizing industry standards, said Russ, who sat on the original board of the Michigan chapter.

Russ is also the immediate past chair of Bay Area Senior Advocates (BASA), a group of individuals representing various senior causes and host of the annual Senior Expo, and he also was recently appointed to the board of the Michigan Great Lakes Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. Meanwhile, Leslie is active in the Grand Traverse Area Parkinson's Support Group.

More information on Comfort Keepers can be found at comfortkeepers.com or by calling the local office at 929-9044. BN

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