As part of a lifestyle and aging series, we’re working with renowned photographer Terry Lorant to showcase inspirational leaders in the industry. Each month, we’ll feature an inspirational member of the Amazing Care Network community who is using his or her voice to empower others in the collective aging experience — and read, in their own words, what the Amazing Care Network’s efforts mean to them.
Introduction from Cora Tellez, Amazing Care Network Founder:
We are featuring Dawn West, Amazing Care Network’s president, in the following member story. It is a story of courage, of family, and ultimately, of love. In reflecting on her story, I was struck by Dawn’s spirit in facing challenging family dynamics and her steadfast support of her family through tough times. It takes a big heart and great courage to share a story like this. I’m proud of Dawn and grateful to her for allowing us to understand and learn from the lessons in her story.
After interviewing with Cora, I knew that she was the kind of person I wanted to work with and felt a connection to the culture she has established at Sterling, Amazing Care Network’s sister company. I joined her team in March of 2014. During the last two years, we built a strong working relationship and it has further developed into a friendship that I value tremendously. We shared an office for a short period of time, while Cora was developing the idea for Amazing Care. Since I was still working for Sterling, I helped whenever I could to help move Amazing Care Network (ACN) forward to a reality. In late 2015, Cora offered me the opportunity to become the President of ACN. After working in finance for 30 years, I was delighted to take the next step in my career. The company’s vision and mission resonates so personally with me. They say if you’re passionate about what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life. In April 2016, I started dedicating 100% of my energy to the success of ACN, and that’s where we are today.
Cora is a visionary. I’m an implementer. So, we make a good team. I love the concept of ACN, and it’s incredibly relevant today. The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to monetize the concept. Every business has to figure that out…how to become profitable while realizing the vision: to help people, to build networks and to provide resources.
We recently launched a new product, the Care Card, a smart debit card. As we started to reach out to individuals about the concept of the Amazing Care Network, we’ve naturally run into people with home health care agencies. One of the problems they’re trying to solve is financial accountability and transparency of the caregiving role. For instance, if I’m trying to deal with the care for my mother living in another state, and I’m giving money to the agency, I want to be confident that I know exactly how those funds are being used.
The Care Card allows us to do just that. You can fund it to any amount and it has visibility and complete transparency. The biggest value to people is that you can control exactly the kind of spending. So, if I have a caregiver that’s picking up medicines, and I only want them to use the money at the pharmacy, the card can be programmed with the merchant codes so that spending can only happen when and where you need it to happen. You can specifically assign ‘pharmacy only’ for instance, or a doctor or dentist. Maybe you have another caregiver that’s getting gas or going to the grocery store. You can control the dollar amount and where the funds can actually be spent…it’s truly a smart card. We launched the Care Card in May.
Right now, I’m focusing on the Care Card side of the business, and Cora is focusing on the Care Accounts which are the employer and individual savings plans. I liken the Care Accounts to special purpose savings accounts – putting money away for unexpected future needs. And the fact that they’re funded with after-tax dollars (not like an HSA, health savings account) means that use of these fund is not restricted in any way. Some of the employers we’ve been working with have decided that they’re going to contribute dollar amounts to their employee’s Care Accounts. For instance, employees collect PTO (personal time off) and in some states the employer can enforce a maximum of PTO balance that an employee can accrue. Some employers, because they want to be seen as an “employers of choice” are deciding to take any additional amount of PTO earned by their employees and contribute those dollars to their Care Accounts.
The part of the Amazing Care Network that speaks to me the most is the part that helps you to protect your loved ones financially, and also to find networks and resources for dealing with care at a distance. My family (3 sisters and 1 brother and their families) live in Iowa and Missouri. My mom is now 88 years old. I’m here in California. So, my oldest sister ends up being the primary caregiver for my mom. Bless her heart! She is amazing! Today, my mom is in a skilled nursing facility and requires 24/7 care. She is in a wheelchair and requires oxygen 24/7. She is diabetic and has congestive heart failure as well as all of the pains that surround these medical and aging issues.
Families are great, and they also come with challenges. In 1993, my dad had a quadruple bypass, and I traveled to Iowa to help my mom sort through some of their finances and offer my support while she cared for him. We set up a budget for her to follow as she’d never taken care of any of the financial responsibilities in the family. My dad always took care of them. I started looking through their checkbook and soon saw repeated checks for $200 made out to some of the grandkids. During that same period of time, I had been getting phone calls from my mom and dad asking if I could I send $10,000 because they needed money. I had to say “what on earth is going on?” but it was beginning to make sense now. You don’t want to ask your parents that kind of question. As I started getting into the books more, it became clear that money was going where it shouldn’t be at this point in their lives. I also discovered that my brother was receiving money too and was making financial commitments for our parents that did not serve them well including putting second mortgages on their only home. They couldn’t and wouldn’t say no. They were being confronted with my brother saying things like, “if you don’t sign this loan, I’m going to kill myself”. So, here are my parents, very gracious and generous people, trying to help and us, the other siblings, none the wiser.
The years progressed; Mom and Dad were aging and needed to move out of their home into an apartment. This would be their second major move. First was the downsizing from the family home of 30 years. Next was the home they were in at the time my dad had his bypass surgery and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The home they were in was next door to my oldest sister and her family (what saints they are!). Now, into an apartment. During the closing on the property, it was revealed that my brother had not fixed his own financial mess as promised, and the bank still had mom and dad’s home as collateral for his loans. Of course, the bank wanted the notes cleared before they would release the collateral. The equity in their home was to be used for their final year and it was dwindling quickly.
Shortly after the home sale was finalized and they had moved into their apartment, my father passed away from complications with Parkinson’s disease. Time passed. My nephew moved in with my mom, his grandmother. He proceeded to steal her identity and order new credit cards. He racked up so much debt under her identity that she had to file bankruptcy. At 83! What reputable credit card company issues new credit cards to an 83 year-old living on a pension and social security with no questions asked? All of the equity left from the sale of their home was gone. Fortunately, my sister had set up burial CD’s, which the bankruptcy attorney initially went after but finally backed off.
Mom lived on her own in the apartment for about two years total, when a fall forced her to move into a skilled nursing facility. Her long-term care insurance kicked in after four months of prepayment which was funded by my siblings and me. Any excess funds she had were taken in the bankruptcy. These upfront cost amounted to around $16,000.
Three months later my nephew who had been living with my mom in the apartment took his own life. The devastating end to a young man’s life. He was 29. He will be gone 4 years in November.
Why do I share all of this? To let others know that this kind of stuff can happen in any family. You might say “what a messed up family?” You’re probably right, but they’re mine and I love them all. What else…the guilt of “why didn’t you…?” The anger of “can’t you take care of…?” The disbelief of “how could you do this to your…?” The denial of “I’m too far away to do anything.” You name it, I felt it. We as a family felt it and still do feel it today.
This is just part of the story of what went on with my own family. And sometimes this happens to people right under their noses, not just because part of the family is living far away. The longer I am in this position with ACN, the more stories like this I hear. We are in a position to make changes with the work we are doing at ACN. Mahatma Gandhi says, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”.
I’m passionate about implementing change. We have created a method and a structure to support our families as they age with transparency and accountability built into the Care Card and supported by the funds available in our Care Accounts. So, even if you’re far away, you can do your part, instead of just indiscriminately sending money. You can help and exert some responsible care and control. I don’t want to see other people have to live through what we did. The Care Card with the support of the Care Accounts is a great way to help others be prepared. It’s a simple system with lots of flexibility. I want others to know that there are options.
Story and photos by Terry Lorant.