Nov 01, 2011
Good business practices
Meet three entrepreneurs who put their ideas, nursing knowledge and enthusiasm to work in their own businesses
Irene Martin: “A true family business”
Family has been at the heart of most of Irene Martin’s major life choices. Her decision to go into business in 1994, for instance, was largely informed by her family’s challenges in caring for elderly parents, whose health issues threatened their ability to remain in the home they loved. This experience prompted Martin to create Retire-At-Home Services, a home care provider that offers a wide gamut of services, from simple companionship to end-of-life care.
Retire-At-Home (RAH) now boasts 25 franchise operations, located in five provinces, and hundreds of employees, including RNs and licensed practical nurses, housekeepers and personal support workers. The company’s beginnings were quite humble. “I ran RAH out of our home in Ottawa for the first five years, and that helped alleviate some of the financial burden of the startup. It was a sound decision from the family perspective, too, because I was able to stay home when my children were teenagers.” There wasn’t much downtime, but she quickly mastered multitasking: “I got very good at making supper while I was talking on the phone to clients and employees.”
“The first few years were tough because I had to learn how to run a business and continue to provide care to clients. [Martin had a single employee at first and then began hiring caregivers as needed.] But looking back, I think the organizational and problem-solving skills that I learned in my 25 years as an RN in oncology, acute care and long-term care have served me well.” The support and participation of her family have been key factors in growing the business. For more than a decade, her son Jonathan handled operational responsibilities and management of the Ottawa office, and he’s now VP of franchise development. Martin’s husband and two other children are also involved, allowing her to focus on managing the Ottawa office.
“In a way, I feel like a surrogate daughter,” says Martin of her relationship with clients. It is telling that she still asks herself “What would I want for my mom and dad?” when there’s a difficult situation to resolve. It’s a question that has helped shape RAH’s approach to care. Each client receives one-on-one care that is nurse managed and that follows a customized care plan, with physical, emotional, psychological and social needs factored in. “Increasingly, we’re acting as a health-system advocate or navigator for clients who don’t have family and friends to rely upon.”
With baby boomers retiring in increasing numbers, business prospects look excellent. “We’ve helped thousands of seniors ease their way into retirement,” says Martin. “I’m very happy to have taken that fork in the road so many years ago.”
Kath Murray: Matters of life and death
Never before in recorded history have we known death as it is now and as it’s going to occur in the coming decades,” says Kath Murray. Advances in the treatment of illness mean that the dying process is often unpredictable and can span years rather than days. Because families are smaller and their members more dispersed, caregivers are an increasingly scarce resource. Canadian society is not adequately prepared for these changes, says Murray, but she is doing her part to meet the challenges.
As a young woman, Murray cared for several family members who were dying. That started her on a path to a BSN, then CNA certification in hospice palliative care nursing and a master’s degree in thanatology — the interdisciplinary study of death, dying and bereavement. Through her work with Victoria Hospice and its palliative response team, Murray gained important insights into the needs of the dying, of their families and of health-care providers. “Although we need specialist hospice palliative care teams, we must also ensure we have a larger pool of individuals who understand the basics and can integrate a hospice palliative approach in all settings where people die.”
Recognizing that there were gaps in education and training in this field, Murray launched Life and Death Matters (LDM)in 2005. With a staff of three and a national network of expert collaborators, the Victoria-based company is dedicated to the development and delivery of resources to help individuals provide the best possible care to the dying and the bereaved. As the head of LDM and its principal course designer and instructor, Murray’s goal is to ensure that the resources are user friendly and engaging.
LDM’s flagship offering is the Essentials in Hospice Palliative Care manual and its companion resources. These products are being used in a number of facilities that care for the dying and in practical nurse and health-care worker programs in colleges, where, Murray says, “the curriculum is so full that instructors were finding it difficult to integrate end-of-life care.” LDM’s newest venture, a series of online interactive courses, has been attracting participants from across Canada and around the world. This success aside, Murray says she has struggled to gain the confidence to work “outside the box” and to convince health-care professionals of the value of private-sector initiatives.
Through LDM, Murray gets to use her expertise, apply her creativity and, most important, have fun doing something she loves. The company name, after all, reflects concerns she’s passionate about. “Working with death is life affirming,” says Murray. “You live life and relationships more fully and richly when you recognize death as an integral part of life.”
Lisa Markin: Partnership unleashed
After watching a TV show about animals working with clients in therapy settings, Lisa Markin realized that the powerful bonds that tie man’s best friend to humans can be harnessed for the purpose of healing. She had a solid background in acute care and gerontology and in group homes for adults with severe developmental disabilities, and she decided she could bring her skills and expertise and a lifelong love for dogs to animal-assisted therapy (AAT). “It seemed like it would be the perfect career path for me,” says Markin.
Going far beyond the scope of traditional pet visitation programs, AAT consists of goal-oriented interactions with a highly trained animal and a human health-care professional. Together, they help clients meet specific therapy goals, with progress documented and evaluated in similar fashion to a nursing care plan. “AAT is a complementary therapy,” Markin explains, “and it can augment the work done in physio, occupational or speech therapy. It can even help with mental health issues.”
In 2008, after an intensive program of online study in AAT, Markin was ready to launch INSPIRE Animal Assisted Therapy. The all-important search for the right four-legged partner eventually led her to team up with Rowan, a female golden retriever with credentials as a Canine Assisted Intervention Dog from the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS) in Burnaby, B.C. Rowan knows 55 commands in all, from opening and closing doors to retrieving dropped items and helping someone undress. Referrals for the team’s services come from other health-care professionals, although many clients and families approach Markin directly. A typical day for this team? They might find themselves helping an autistic child with communication skills by having her recite Rowan’s commands — and witnessing her delight when Rowan obeys! Or assisting in the rehabilitation of a stroke victim by having him squeeze a ball that releases the dog treats hidden inside. Or encouraging someone with ambulatory challenges to use a walker for an extra-long stroll with Rowan. The element of fun Rowan brings motivates clients and gives them something to look forward to.
“The business side of hanging out my shingle has been the biggest learning curve,” says Markin. “I had to start thinking about private practice insurance, marketing, consent forms and record keeping.” Today, her client list is growing, but she continues to work part time as a hemodialysis RN to help pay the bills. The non-monetary rewards of her work with Rowan, however, are incalculable: “I have been told by clients’ families that the time we spend with their loved ones is the one thing that helps them ‘go on.’ When Rowan and I drive home after a session together, I’m smiling all the way!”