New company gives seniors someone to chat with

As a busy business owner in San Francisco, Carol Seltzer isn’t able to visit her 83-year-old mother every day. But as an only child, she knows her mother depends on her for daily intellectual stimulation.

Fretting about how she’d provide that for her mom, Seltzer felt a sense of relief after she found Engage As You Age.

“Engage As You Age has been like finding a diamond in a field of weeds,” said Seltzer, CEO of three Site for Sore Eyes stores in the Bay Area. “It’s given me such a feeling of relief. My mother feels so blessed to have someone interested in her. It’s a friendship.”

Giuliana Perrone (standing) participates in a discussion of U.S. history with Rhoda Goldman Plaza residents (from left) Marge Siegan, Reby Lerner and Selma Klett.

Engage As You Age is a 10-month-old Bay Area company that “creates inter-generational connections,” according to founder and owner Ben Lewis, by pairing one of its workers (usually a non-senior) for conversations with a homebound or isolated senior.

The matches are based on common interests and other similarities, Lewis said.

The company’s one-on-one sessions cost about $50 an hour, generally last two hours and include only conversation rather than any type of caregiving. The company’s services are non-denominational.

Lewis said he discovered an interest in elder care when he was a kid and his mother attended to Russian Jewish immigrants in hospice care. He often tagged along.

The idea for the company was born not long after Lewis moved to San Francisco from Maryland and was hired to be a conversation partner for a 91-year-old woman after responding to a Craigslist ad; after she died, her family was so enamored with the job Lewis did that they asked for donations to be sent to him, which enabled him to start Engage As You Age.

Lewis, 32, said the key to his company is hiring the right people — “someone who can give a funny travel anecdote and then talk about the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould,” he said.

 Currently, he has a cadre of some 200 “activity specialists,” as he calls them.

“Personalities drive this. We need someone who can really connect with a senior,” he said. “We take a lot of time to hire people. We research them and make sure they’re the right fit. We want people who have the gift of gab and can be a good listener.”

Another branch of the company involves working with groups. For example, at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, an assisted-living facility in San Francisco, Engage As You Age started a twice-a-month history discussion group, with plans in the works for another to launch in January (opera and Shakespeare are being considered as topics).

In addition, there currently is a group discussion on the topic of beauty (taught by a Harvard University cultural anthropologist) at the University Mound Ladies Home in San Francisco and a history discussion group just getting going at the AlmaVia elder-care center in San Francisco.

Giuliana Perrone, a Ph.D. candidate in history at U.C. Berkeley, is the leader of the discussion group at Rhoda Goldman Plaza.

“I look forward to [the sessions] because people have so many interesting things to say,” Perrone said. “There’s also one woman who won’t say anything in class. But she comes up after and always has something intelligent and insightful to say.”

As someone who teaches 20 hours a week at U.C. Berkeley, Perrone said one thing she likes about being with the seniors is that it’s a discussion — rather than a one-way lecture by her.

“The whole process at Rhoda Goldman is totally seamless for me, and incredibly rewarding,” Perrone said.

“We’re not doing a concert for the seniors, or giving a lecture,” Lewis said. “It’s back and forth, and Giuliana’s role is to get as many people involved as possible. She has a great way of guiding the conversation, and always summing up what people say.”

While the seniors themselves are the company’s whose seniors’ families are equally important to the company’s mission.

“We’re directly serving the seniors,” Lewis said. “But the family members really benefit from us.”

That has certainly been true for Carol Seltzer, whose 83-year-old mother, Selma Josephson, suffers from dementia and poor vision.

“When my dad died seven years ago, there were a lot of miles between my mother, who was in Florida, and me,” Seltzer said. “She can’t drive and was diagnosed with early dementia. I was distraught.

“Eventually she came out here and lives at the Vintage, an assisted-living facility in San Francisco,” Seltzer said. “I had such guilt about not being with her every day. But Engage As You Age has given me a reprieve. I wish there were more services out there like this. Addressing elders’ mental health is as important as someone taking their blood sugar.”

Engage As You Age can be reached at (415) 690-6944 or online at www.engageasyouage.com.