Business with care: Founder of AV.E Health, Thomas Stern, was once a caregiver himself. Now he wants to provide people with dementia and their caregivers with tailored vacation services. Photo courtesy of Thomas Stern (photo by Kate Walters Photography).
When you’re taking care of someone with dementia, there's no such thing as just getting away for a few days. So says Asheville resident Thomas Stern, who’s had extensive caregiving experience.
To help address such challenges, Stern is launching AV.E Health. Beginning in January, the company will offer assisted vacations at the Grove Park Inn for people with dementia and their family caregivers.
Xpress spoke with Stern recently about dementia, his new business venture and what it means to be a caregiver.
Mountain Xpress: What inspired you to start this business?
Thomas Stern: I was a caregiver to both my grandparents; one had vascular dementia and one had Alzheimer's. I was particularly suited to be their caregiver because I speak Hungarian and they were Hungarian. That was after I graduated from Warren Wilson College, and I ended up being a caregiver to them for about five years. During that time, I went to A-B Tech to do an LPN program to become a better caregiver. When they both passed, I started working in adult day care as a nurse while also attending graduate school.
The idea for assisted vacations just came out of a need that we had as a family. We took my grandparents on trips, but it wasn't a vacation, because we were still caregivers.
What was it like to be a caregiver after you’d just graduated from college?
The thing about caregiving is that it's incredibly complex on the psychological level. Any time you do something to benefit yourself, you perceive it as detracting from the person you’re caring for. It's really hard to do things that are good for yourself.
I was pretty much in the prime of my life, but caregiving really took a toll on me physically. When I was later working at an adult day care, I saw 75-year-old women doing the same thing I did as a young man, and that's incredibly hard.
It's been proven that it’s detrimental to be a caregiver. What's also interesting is that about 80 percent of people with Alzheimer's are being cared for by family members at home. The person with dementia in a nursing home is kind of an anomaly.
What is an assisted vacation?
One of the things we plan to focus on is making custom vacations for people that really suit the individual and their particular circumstances. Say you have someone who’s in a wheelchair and needs 100 percent personal care — they’re going to require a lot more of our staff than someone who maybe just needs to be engaged socially. Typically, it will be for five days and four nights.
And you’ll have 24/7 medical staff. Why is this important?
People with dementia are often in a frail health state anyway, because there's a direct correlation with age. There are people who have younger-onset Alzheimer's who don't have those issues, but there might be people with diabetes, heart issues and whatever else. That's why the medical staff is necessary.
Caregivers want to have someone who can respond to an emergency if they need to, and also, the medical professional is there for the caregivers to really sort of help them plan wellness on a day-to-day basis. Caregivers can be incredibly isolated; they need that encouragement to build a wellness routine and stick to it. So we've budgeted to have a registered nurse on duty 24 hours a day, from the time they arrive to the time they leave.
How much will these vacations cost?
It's definitely designed for folks with discretionary income. We kind of let our philosophy be that exceptional services are not inexpensive, but they’re incredibly valuable. It's going to break down similar to hiring private care — starting at, say, $20 an hour for care.
But these vacations are also about making memories.
This is something that's so critical for families. My wife is French, and while we were caregiving for my grandma, we went to France. My grandmother was being cared for by my brother, and within two weeks, I was miserable. I was constantly worried about her, wondering whether my brother was caring for her as well as I felt I could. I wasn't able to enjoy my vacation.
We've also had conversations with people about weddings and graduations. I've known people whose grandparents haven’t gone to weddings because of dementia; this is a really elegant solution to that. If you're going to plan a wedding at the Grove Park Inn or anywhere in Asheville, our staff can be there to help include all family members.
What kind of relationship will AV.E Health have with the Grove Park Inn?
We have an agreement with them that our guests come in through us and book vacations with us. The Grove Park Inn has made us corporate travel partners, but they’re not involved in the care. They’ll provide the same amenities they would for any other guest.
Since you won't start offering vacations until January, where are you now with the business?
We're looking to hire our health-care staff. We're hoping to hire 15 to 20 people between now and the new year, and we’ll be paying above industry average.
Why is this service important?
We have to come up with these resources: It's an absolute public-health crisis. If you look at the trajectory of Alzheimer's, both in terms of incidence and expense, I think it's going to be the defining health condition of this century. The more kinds of nonpharmacological and social-type programs we can do, the more it will help.
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