Castro Resident Helps Seniors Reconnect with People, Interests
Founded by neighborhood resident Ben Lewis, the small business aims to provide an outlet for the elderly with the possibility of friendship. (photo: Bill Sywak)
By Kellie Ell
It’s inspiring to watch Ben Lewis work. He is determined to make some friendships—and we’re not talking about the Facebook kind.
For more than a year, he has been hard at work searching for productive, imaginative adults to match up with elderly Bay Area residents to form lasting relationships. Lewis is the owner and founder of Engage As You Age, a unique self-started company that works to bridge the gap between socially isolated seniors by pairing them with individuals who have similar interests from more active age groups.
“It’s hard to market something out of the box. Not everyone cares about the elderly,” Lewis says. “We’re looking to create an alternative that compliments the things that are already out there.”
Working with a small staff, Engage As You Age teams up people, ranging from college graduates to the retired, who have interests related to their older counterparts’ backgrounds. The “activity specialist” meets with the senior once, twice, sometimes three times a week, to “empower” seniors with social interaction, companionship, conversation, personal expression, and hopefully, a lasting friendship.
The hardworking “aging-expert” moved to the Bay Area after finishing his Ph.D in history in African-American studies at Yale University. Lewis, who now calls the Castro home, grew up in the Washington D.C. area and had worked at a variety of jobs, including working as a teacher and volunteer in India, Zimbabwe, Taiwan and various parts of the United States, before landing on in California.
Soon after taking up residence in the city, Lewis realized he needed a career change, and stumbled across a Craigslist ad asking for help with an elderly woman. Anna was a 90-something “old lefty who had set up the first all-female law firm in the city.”
“We clicked right away. It just made sense,” Lewis said.
They started having regular visits in the evenings where they would talk, debate, and he would read to her because of her poor eyesight.
“The one thing she really wanted was some human interaction. Before we knew it we’d talk about everything from Lyndon Johnson to my love life,” he said laughing. “It filled a huge void for me, and it was just really clear to me that this is a real needed service.”
Amongst further investigation, Lewis found that most senior centers or retirement homes were understaffed, even the “upscale, expensive ones,” and operated in “assembly-line” format. Many of the residents were confided to beds or their rooms because of physical problems, but their minds were still sharp. The lack of staff and resources made it nearly impossible for socializing or communication among “these really interesting people.”
From there, Lewis put together a small group of people who visited seniors seven nights a week and sprang into action the foundation for Engage As You Age.
“In life we gravitate towards people who are interested in the same things as you,” Lewis said. “The elderly are lumped together by age, not by interest.”
Two and a half years later Anna passed away, and in her obituary her family asked for money to be sent to Lewis to start his own specialty business catering to seniors. Today, the small business has ballooned to include more than a hundred part-time employees matched with Bay Area seniors who can make regular visits over an extended period of time.
“I only hire really smart people with good personal skills; they need to be interesting and have to bring something to the table for another human being,” Lewis said.
Employee requirements include a 15-page online application, a phone interview, an extensive background check, an essay explaining intent, a quiz from the 60-page handbook, a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation in front of the staff highlighting what talents the potential employee has to offer, and a two-hour training period where Lewis tires to “scare them to death” about the realities of working with the elderly.
Today, Lewis speaks regularly in front of panel discussions and senior professional associations, and in 2009 was featured on CBS’s “Start-Up Spotlight.” Engage As You Age also hosts group programming with three different retirement homes including a U.S. history group and a Shakespeare group, which offers intellectual options to the predictable bingo nights.
In the next few years, Lewis said he would like to “touch as many lives as possible” by extending these programs to include ten facilities in the Bay Area, and hopes to broaden the community to embrace more of the 1.1 million seniors living in the city and beyond.
“We’re the only service like this in America,” Lewis says. “We’re sensitive to individuals and needs of each person; locale, interests and every point in between.”
Engage as You Age is located at 275 5th St. #320 in San Francisco. They can be reached by phone at (415) 690-6944 and online at engageasyouage.com.