Keeler's World

Pat Williams: Graceful Care [Washington Woman magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Washington Woman magazine
May 2003

As the population ages, grown children are faced with having to care for their elderly, sometimes sickly, parents. Thanks to Pat Williams’ Graceful Care and her staff of 60 trained caregivers, there is help. And hope.

When a friend introduced forty-something Pat Williams to octogenarian Dorothy Stone in 1994, the two women became fast friends.

Stone, it turned out, had just been widowed after 60 years of marriage and was feeling sad and lonely. Their mutual friend thought Williams, who then owned the VIP Travel Agency in Reston, VA-could plan a fun and interesting vacation for Stone.

At their initial meeting, though, Williams realized it wasn’t a trip that Stone needed. It was companionship. So for months thereafter, the two women met for lunch and conversation, and many of their meetings lasted for much of the afternoon.

“Our lunches lingered not only because I enjoyed spending time with Dorothy, but also because she suffered from arthritis and didn’t move as quickly as she used to,” Williams explains.

Then, after spending months watching Stone wade through the age-related difficulties that peppered her life, Williams realized her friend needed more attention than she could give.

Sure, Stone could care for herself most of the time. But there was the challenge of getting to doctor’s appointments on time and doing simple household chores when her arthritis flared up.

So, in 1995, Williams sold the travel agency and founded Reston, VA based Graceful Care: assistance, care and companionship for people who can no longer perform certain tasks or who need loving attention.

“Our goal is to lift their burdens and create joy and laughter,” Williams says. “We want to help them celebrate their contributions, for these people have lived a lifetime and have much to share. They need our praise, some direction and purpose, and they need to have some fun. We offer all of this while keeping them safe. That’s the key to our success and to theirs.”

TAPPING INTO A TREND

While filling a void in the life of Stone and others like her, Williams has tapped into a growing national trend.

According to the federal Administration on Aging (AOA), the elderly population has reached a record high-1 3 percent of the total U.S. population. In the next 30 years the AOA estimates the number of elderly people in America will grow to 20 percent.

The consequences of this shift are likely to be dramatic, the AOA predicts. Its research has found that the aggregate cost of care giving to U.S. business in terms of lost production (due to absenteeism, costs of hiring replacements for those forced to leave because of care giving responsibilities, workday interruptions and employee health and mental care) already tops $11.4 billion per year.

“The need for family care giving will likely have profound implications for the future,” the AOA indicates.

This isn’t news, of course Americans already live longer and grown children have had to take care of their aging parents. Many have struggled to deal with that reality while raising families of their own.

In 1980, Louise Fradkin and Mirca Liberti of Levittown, PA, established a nonprofit organization called “Children of Aging Parents” (CAPS) to assist the nation’s growing legion of caregivers.

“We began as a small group of neighbors, each caring for our elderly parents, informally discussing our problems and feelings,” Liberti says. “We discovered we shared
similar needs, concerns and limitations.”

When the two women began looking at the statistics on caregivers in the U.S., they were amazed to find more than 23 percent of all U.S. households contained a caregiver and that the number was growing. Their research also revealed that the average caregiver is 46 years old and that 73 percent of caregivers are female.

In 1986, Ann Landers, who knew of the group, suggested in response to a letter from a reader that caregivers with questions write to
CAPS for support and advice.

Within weeks, 10 trays of letters arrived in Levittown from all over the country, and it took CAPS members four months to respond to all of them.

“The avalanche of mail pointed out a national issue and a national need,” says Fradkin, noting that CAPS now averages about 8,000 requests for assistance each year.

“Modern technology and medical science keep us living longer, but often with chronic illnesses like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, respiratory diseases and the after-effects of strokes. The result is that care giving has become the fastest growing, unpaid profession in America.”

FILLING A NEED

The goal of CAPS is to provide this mass of people with reliable information, referrals and support and to heighten public awareness that the health of the family caregivers is essential to ensure quality care of the nation’s growing elderly population.

The goals for Graceful Care, Williams says, are to take care of elderly people who have no one to help them and to assist family caregivers by giving them a much-needed respite.

“More and more, people are struggling with the overwhelming responsibility of caring for aging parents and too often cease to take care of themselves,” Williams says.

Yet, caregivers need a day off, a vacation or simply a night out.

“When caregivers do get needed time off, they are better able to care for their families,” she explains, noting that, unfortunately, many of her customers ask for help only they have become desperate. Other times, children of aging parents will call because they don’t now what to do about issues like hoarding (a common problem where the elderly refuse to throw anything away—even garbage).

Other clients are grown children who live far from their aging parents and want to make sure there is someone keeping an eye on an elderly mother or father.

The list of special needs goes oil, says Williams, who believes she has seen just about every situation regarding caring for the elderly. Usually, one of her team of 60 assistants has the skills required to improve the situation.

“It takes a soft touch and a loving heart to do this kind of work, and we usually find a way to straighten up place, make sure the aging person is fed and clean and, most importantly, ensure that they really feel tended to,” she notes.

Also important to Williams is keeping her costs low. She charges per hour and the fee goes down as the number of hours increase. Williams also keeps the workload manageable, rarely taking on more than 50 clients at a time.

As for the future, Williams says she plans to continue serving the elderly in the Washington area. Although she once considered turning her firm into a national franchise, she decided that keeping it small and local enables her to have control over the quality of service she provides.

“The elderly are people who are frequently vulnerable and fragile,” she believes. “I didn’t want to grow the company to the point where I couldn’t monitor each case. After all, our mission is to keep other people’s loved ones safe. That’s a big responsibility, and it’s one that needs a hands-on approach. I think that if I can do that for the aging population in this area, I’m making a contribution.”

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