Home care from the heart

Kim Kreber brings a special perspective to her new business, which provides non-medical care to anyone requiring help to stay in their homes. 

"Every caregiver that comes in for an interview, I look at that person and say, 'Would I feel comfortable having this person take care of my own mom?' '' says Kreber, who owns the tri-state region's first Synergy HomeCare franchise. "I visualize that. If I have any doubts, I won't send him or her to take care of your mom of your loved one.'' 

Her mother, Mary Krier, suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. When she was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disorder eight years ago, Kreber, a 1981 Kingsley-Pierson High School graduate, was living in extreme northeast Iowa with her husband, John, and their three children. Three years later, after her mother was put on a ventilator in her Morningside home, the Krebers returned to Siouxland to help care for her. 

Kim Kreber has shared caregiver duties with her father, Dennis, a retired grain elevator manager, and her two sisters, both of whom are registered nurses. 

"There are many families out there who aren't so lucky, who don't have as much support as we do,'' she says. "We just had a real strong feeling that there was a need for this type of services in this area, based on our experiences with mom.'' 

That played a major role in Kreber's decision to purchase the Synergy HomeCare franchise, which offers quality, non-medical services to the elderly, disabled, convalescing, or anyone else who needs help with such daily tasks as bathing, dressing, housekeeping or meal preparation. Care is available on an hourly, weekly, monthly and even 24/2 basis, 365 days a year. 

Synergy HomeCare, founded in 2002 by Peter Tourian, began franchising three years later after experiencing explosive growth in its home state of Arizona. Last year, the first Midwest franchise was awarded to the Krebers, whose territory includes all of Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. Kim Kreber runs the Synergy HomeCare office at One River Place in Dakota Dunes, while her husband, John, continues to hold his full-time job as assistant human resources manager at Interbake Foods in North Sioux City. The couple are empty nesters, with their three children, ages 19, 20 and 21, all attending the University of South Dakota in nearby Vermillion. 

The couple also are regional developers for Synergy HomeCare, recruiting and training additional franchisees in the tri-state area. The estimated initial investment ranges from $42,000 to $62,000, which includes a $35,000 franchise fee. 

Kreber admits the home care field wasn't even on their radar screen when she and her husband began exploring different franchise opportunities after moving back to Siouxland. Previously, she and her husband both had been employed at a Mississippi River riverboat casino in the northeast Iowa city of Marquette where they also lived. 

After earning a degree in accounting from USD, Kreber passed the CPA exam, but spent the next 14 years working in the areas of finance and management for casinos in Iowa and South Dakota, including, most recently, the Argosy riverboat in Sioux City. 

In addition to her family's own personal experiences, Kreber says she became intrigued with the home care field after seeing demographic information that shows a staggering need for the services. 

Iowa currently has the nation's third highest percentage of the population 85 years or older. Fueled by the aging of the nation's 76 million baby boomers, who will begin retiring in the next few years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the home health industry will increase by more than 55 percent between 2002 and 2012. 

More than 50 million family members currently care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member, according to the National Family Caregivers Association. 

"I've been a caregiver for a long time and I understand how valuable these services are not only to the patient, but probably as much or more so for the family,'' Kreber says. "It takes an emotional, physical toll on a family caregiver to care for their loved ones for an extended period of time.'' 

After flying to Phoenix to meet with Synergy executives, Kreber and her husband came away impressed with the company's commitment to quality service, as well as its cutting-edge software package, which tracks a clients' needs and matches them with the appropriate caregiver. 

Unlike some other home care providers, Synergy also doesn't limit its services to the elderly. Anyone in need of help with routine in-home tasks is eligible, from expectant and new mothers to working patients caring for a disabled child to patients convalescing from surgery or battling illness or disease. 

Hourly rates run $14 to $18, depending on the level of care, Kreber says. Some insurance plans, worker's compensation and Medicaid waiver programs cover the services, but most clients are private pay. 

A wide range of services are available, which allows clients to customize their care without committing to long-term contracts. Services are divided into three main categories -- homemakers, personal care assistants, and daily living companionship. 

"We have some clients who are just kind of lonely and want someone to visit,'' says Di' Ann Shockley, operations manager for the local Synergy franchise. "Maybe they are still active and still can do everything in the home, but can't drive any longer. So we can provide transportation for them.'' 

Caregivers can transport clients around town, to such places as the doctor's office, shopping centers or theatre performances. 

The non-medical services are not intended to replace skilled nursing care, but can supplement it, Kreber says. Caregivers can help keep clients healthy by maintaining a clean home environment, reminding them to take their prescription medicines and report any changes in their conditions, possibly helping to avoid an emergency room visit. 

Kreber says her business has grown significantly since sending out her first caregiver last April. The franchise now has nearly 30 caregivers and recently signed up its first 24/7 client -- 102-year-old Stan Pecaut, who lives at NorthPark Senior Living Community in Sioux City. 

Connie Wilen, Pecaut's daughter, says her father has required home care to stay at NorthPark since he fell and broke his back two years ago. Dissatisfied with the care provided by another agency, the family turned to Synergy, which Wilen had heard about in her home state of Arizona. 

Wilen says she and her father are pleased with the quality and continuity of service that Synergy has provided in the first month. 

"They have promised to send the same people every day, which is very important to him,'' she says. "They have been really great to train the girls for him. They're wonderful people.'' 

Caregivers must pass an extensive background check, undergo through health screenings and be state-certified in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. 

Kreber says many caregivers have previous nursing or home care experience. During interviews, she says applicants routinely says they're seeking a job because they expect to "get more out of it'' than they give. 

"For them it's not a paycheck. It's something they give from the heart.'' 

Like Kreber does for her own mother.