After falling off a tall ladder last January, Mountain View resident Tom Schwartz stayed flat on his back for weeks. Pain radiated through his back, leg and hand, and he had to wear compression socks to keep his right leg from swelling due to a blood clot.
His wife, Elizabeth, a contractor for Hewlett-Packard, worked during the day, so Schwartz was on his own for long stretches. Fortunately, friends from Los Altos United Methodist Church and elsewhere filled the gap, driving him to the drugstore, making him lunch and keeping him company, sometimes for four hours a day.
Schwartz was able to pay his good fortune forward when his father, Gus, experienced a similar fall. His dad fell down a steep flight of stairs leading to the basement in his San Mateo home, injuring his neck. It took Gus some time to reach his son by phone, and then another 40 minutes for Schwartz to make the drive from Mountain View to get Gus to the emergency room.
Schwartz, 54, who was unemployed at the time, was available to drive his father to doctors’ appointments, shampoo his hair and run errands such as filling prescriptions and shopping for groceries.
But what about seniors whose children don’t live nearby?
Armed with a business degree from San Jose State University, high-tech experience in sales and marketing and a lifelong interest in seniors, in 2010 the Schwartzes opened a local franchise to help older people in similar binds – Seniors Helping Seniors of the Mid-peninsula, which matches seniors who want to help with seniors who need help in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
Eighty-two-year-old Theresa McDaniel, a Los Altos Hills resident, was an early client. Her husband has a terminal illness, but she still leads an active life, including playing bridge. Her daughter, Los Altos resident Jan McDaniel, noted that her mom needs help when she’s out and about town. Jan, a marketing officer, has three college-age children who keep her busy. She isn’t always available.
Jan, who knew the Schwartzes through church, said she admired their compassion and trusted their instincts as caregivers.
Schwartz said he plays golf with Theresa, who has no problems keeping up physically.
“She has the best golf swing I’ve ever seen,” he said, adding that he also takes her to the movies.
“Tom is her favorite,” said Jan of the caregivers, and she likes the idea that younger seniors can better relate to her parents.
Another Seniors Helping Seniors client, Mike Shemwell, gives Schwartz the thumbs-up as well.
“He does everything – whatever needs to be done,” Shemwell said of Schwartz, including planting bulbs, vacuuming and mowing the lawn.
Shemwell’s wife, Lisa, discovered Seniors Helping Seniors via an El Camino Hospital referral.
The heart of a helper
Schwartz said he looks for people with a “volunteer” mindset and matches them with seniors in need of assistance with activities of daily living or who just need companionship. He uses younger seniors – those in their 50s and 60s – to help housebound seniors in their 80s and 90s.
The two most important qualities in a good helper, Schwartz said, are “the ability to make conversation and the ability to be punctual.” Because many seniors are socially isolated, he said, helpers must have the gift of gab.
Los Altos realtor Melanie Johnson has these qualities – and the heart of a volunteer.
She met the Schwartzes through church, where she was active in Angels on Call, a volunteer group that helps seniors.
“With the older population in Los Altos, I was helping those who couldn’t drive anymore or those who never drove, friends who lost their vision due to macular degeneration and who couldn’t write their own Christmas cards,” she said. “They might just want their friends to know they’re still here.”
On Easter, for example, the “angels” visited homebound seniors with lilies to bring the holiday to them.
Johnson, in her early 50s, has two daughters and a stepdaughter, and has fond memories of her own grandparents.
“When I get old, I want someone to be around for me,” she said, “but we live in such a mobile society compared to when my grandparents were around.”
So Johnson signed up to be on call for Seniors Helping Seniors, a job she does for the personal rewards, not the money.
Her main job, she said, is “just to be their feet.” She works with an older couple who are still independent but have moved into an assisted-living building.
“They’re a darling couple, and I call them every morning at 8 a.m.,” Johnson said. “Neither of them can drive anymore, and if she has a toothache on the weekends when the SunnyView pharmacy is closed, I’ll get the medicine for her.”
As a realtor, Johnson frequently works nights and weekends, leaving mornings free to be on call for seniors. Her tasks range from light household chores like changing sheets to checking up on people.
“People’s children (often) live really far away, sometimes across the country, so there’s nobody here to help with everyday tasks,” she said.
One condition: Schwartz won’t let any of his employees use ladders.