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Trial By Fire: Caregiving Forges A New Breed of Entrepreneur

Caring for an elderly loved one requires one to possess solid time management techniques, know how to deal with different types of people, effectively cope with stress, and be able to handle the unexpected.

Incidentally, these are also essential skills for would-be entrepreneurs.

Perhaps that's why people caring for aging family members sometimes find re-birth in the world of business.

These passionate phoenixes have transformed themselves, using their experiences to fan the flames of new ventures aimed at helping the legions of family caregivers.

Giving Alzheimer's a voice

Lori La Bey describes how caring for her aging parents led to the idea that gradually ignited her entrepreneurial spirit.

Soon after taking on the responsibilities of caring for her parents, who were diagnosed with two separate ailments in rapid succession—brain cancer for her father and dementia for her mother—La Bey fell into the common caregiver patterns of perfectionism, guilt and self-imposed separation from the rest of the world. "I felt so isolated, thinking I was supposed to know all the answers," she says.

It was these emotions that compelled La Bey to create "Alzheimer's Speaks," a company dedicated to changing the way people view dementia care.

Under the overarching umbrella of Alzheimer's Speaks, La Bey conducts speaking and training seminars geared towards teaching caregivers and seniors struggling with dementia.

She's also created a website meant to serve as an aid for these caregivers, connecting them with educational resources like, "Dementia Chat"—a bi-monthly webinar series that interviews people with early-stage memory loss to help caregivers get a better sense of what these individuals are going through.

La Bey's ultimate goal is to get more people talking about dementia. She feels that open discussion and candid dialogue are the keys to removing the stigma of dementia and improving the culture of elder care.

Caregiving and starting a business have taught La Bey many things. But ultimately, one lesson stands out more than any other: "Perfection doesn't matter, and it doesn't exist," she says. More than anything else, this revelation allowed La Bey to let go, learn from her mistakes, and live to fight (and care) another day.

Finding the celebration in the struggle

Jenn Chan was no stranger to the challenging aspects of caregiving.

As a caregiver for her 94-year-old grandmother, Chan had to witness the transformation of her beloved relative from an independent mentor into someone who relied on her for everything from bathing and toileting, to meal preparation and getting in and out of bed.

In spite of this, she saw the potential for celebration within the sorrow. "Why isn't there a party for this?" she asks, "There's definitely something to celebrate when someone is showing that humanity, giving and providing for another."

Recognizing that the role of being a family caregiver has an overwhelmingly negative connotation, Chan decided to develop a way to not only change the prevailing rhetoric surrounding caregiving, but also to help newly-minted caregivers discover vital sources of help and support at the beginning of their journey, rather than being forced to learn on-the-fly.

Chan's brainchild, "The Senior Shower Project," aims to empower new caregivers—to help them realize that they can cope.

She came up with the idea of a senior shower while attending a baby shower for one of her friends. When asked when she was going to get married and have children of her own, she confessed being struck by the thought of how similar taking care of her grandmother was to taking care of a child.

The purpose of a senior shower is two-fold: to celebrate the caregiver and their new role and to connect them with a solid network of people and information that will help them in the months and years to come.

Chan feels that one of the biggest challenges facing the new caregiver is that there's no formal education or preparation event to help them. "I've realized that we should put a more emphasis on developing a proactive approach to caregiving. Why don't we try to create a system where people look forward to this role?"

To those who would contest that becoming a caregiver is nothing to celebrate, Chan replies, "That's the exact mentality that I'm trying to shift. One human is taking care of another human," she says, "Let's celebrate it. Celebrate caregivers. Celebrate their patience, their love, their willingness to put aside their needs for another."

A different kind of coach

Cindy Laverty made it six months before she crashed.

Crippled by feelings of burnout that she had thought herself immune to, Laverty found herself drowning while trying to care for her ex-husband's parents and cope with her daughter's recent cross-country move to college.

Her former father-in-law, Bob, had suffered a stroke just days after undergoing open heart surgery. The event left him incapable of caring for himself, let alone his wife, who suffered from dementia and epilepsy.

What had started off as a seemingly simple request to look after Bob's wife and finances while he had surgery, had turned into a full-time caregiving job that caught Laverty off guard.

After quitting her job and trying to cope on her own, Laverty says she just started getting stronger.

She began seeking help and educating herself, reading what she describes as, "books about what to do when your life falls apart." Caring for her former in-laws was the catalyst that helped Laverty discover that caregivers, no matter how strong they are, need help, and they need it fast.

She admits that becoming a caregiver coach was something of an accident, "I made a business out of my mess," she jokes.

Laverty's passion to help others avoid her mistakes drove her to build a business around being a caregiver coach. She began as the host of a caregiver-focused radio show and has expanded her enterprise, "The Care Company," into a multi-media service that includes: public speaking, one-on-one coaching, and an online provider network of resources for caregivers.

Advice for the budding businessperson

For her part, Laverty feels that people with experience taking care of aging adults possess numerous skills that can make them successful entrepreneurs.

Current caregivers may not have the time or the resources to start a business, but there's no harm in considering it as a future possibility, especially if you feel strongly about a particular cause.

Laverty has a few tips for those seeking to translate their hard-earned expertise into an enterprise:

  • Get an education-If time and cost constraints prevent you from taking business courses, or attending seminars, then Laverty says you need to read, read, read. Her list of important books for entrepreneurs includes: "The Charge," by Brendan Burchard; "Fascinate," by Sally Hogshead; and "What the Best CEOs Know," by Jeffrey Krames. She also says it's vital to read books on the subject of your business and the marketplace you plan on competing in.
  • Find your niche, make a plan-Ask yourself these questions: Who do you want to help? How will your business make money?
  • Seek out the successful-Learn from those who have succeeded at business. If you have any friends or acquaintances that are entrepreneurs, pick their brains.
  • Some things to keep in mind-Starting a new business will be costly, scary and difficult. It will also bring out the nay-sayers—both those in your mind and those among your friends and family.

The main thing is not to be afraid to put yourself out there fully. Laverty admits that getting rid of her "plan B," was the thing that really turned her business endeavor around. "As soon as I decided there was no other option, things started changing," she says.

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