Reinventing After a Family Crisis

When her grandmother could no longer manage by herself, former marketing executive Denise Thomas found her passion: helping the elderly live at home for as long as possible.

by Michelle Stacey
Reinventing after Family Crisis
Photograph: Misty Keasler

Thomas felt ready to come back to the U.S. Unsuccessful fertility treatments had left her emotionally fragile, and she wanted a fresh career challenge. At the same time, her grandmother, who lived halfway across the country in New York State, was afflicted with Alzheimer's and in decline. What unfolded next, says Thomas, echoes the story she now hears over and over from families that seek her help. “My mom decided to move Grandma into her house and take care of her,” she says. But the stress on all concerned was too much, and the family had to transfer Thomas's grandmother to a senior living community. “It was a beautiful place, but she hated it,” says Thomas. She suffered from leaving the home she'd lived in for 50 years, the church she'd attended, the lifelong friends she'd spent time with. “My grandmother had been an outgoing person, but when she got to the facility, she kind of shut down,” says Thomas. Her decline accelerated; she had a stroke and passed away soon afterward.


Back home in Austin after her grandmother's funeral, Thomas hit bottom, mourning the loss, despairing about her infertility and fretting about finding a next step for her career. One day, while listening to a tape by the motivational speaker Marianne Williamson, Thomas burst into tears. “Williamson was talking about focusing on what you can give to others rather than on what you want to get back for yourself,” says Thomas. Right after the tape ended, as she idly flipped through a business magazine, she came upon an article about the Home Instead Senior Care franchise.


“It was magical,” Thomas recalls. “It hit me: This is what I'm supposed to be doing. I had wanted to be a doctor when I was young, and I volunteered as a candy striper at a hospital in my teens. I wanted to help care for other people—especially seniors.” She started researching the franchise and talking to her close friend Ariel Miller about it, and that's when the second piece fell into place. Miller, a neighbor with two young children, offered to partner with Thomas, sharing the work and the $50,000 start-up cost.


In April 2003, Thomas and Miller flew to Omaha for a week of intensive training at the company's headquarters. It was on the plane that Thomas turned to Miller and asked, offhandedly, “Do you ever think of having more children?” The two women had discussed Thomas's struggle with infertility, so Miller knew the details: that the problem was not Thomas's eggs, which were viable, but some unknown factor that prevented her from carrying a pregnancy to term. Miller, a petite, birdlike woman who describes herself as intuitive and spiritual, suddenly felt called to help. “I'm going to have your child!” Miller blurted out. “This is how it will happen: You've got great eggs, and I've got a great uterus, so I'll carry it. This baby wants to be born.” Three months later, fertilized embryos from Thomas and her husband were implanted into Miller's uterus, and on May 11, 2004, Maya came into the world.


For Thomas, it was a miracle—but the business was having a harder time being born. Miller, who'd developed debilitating morning sickness, had pulled out of the franchise, and by the time Maya arrived, Thomas was overwhelmed by work. She called Pamela Mitchell, a friend from her days at the Discovery Channel who is also a career coach. “I told Pamela I was ready to quit,” Thomas says. “I felt guilty about having to leave Maya, and I had to do everything—scheduling, even filling in for caregivers if they couldn't make it.” Mitchell advised her to read The E Myth, a book about entrepreneurship subtitled Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It. Thomas already owned a copy: The Home Instead founders had given one to each new franchisee, but she hadn't found the time to read it. Now she did. “It summarized all my mistakes,” she says. The biggest one: trying to do everything herself. She stepped back and started trusting her staff to make decisions.


First Published November 28, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


N.J. Parsons12.09.2011

It's nice that this "second act" woman got so much free publicity for her $2 million/yr. business.
This puff piece is hardly an even-handed look at any aspect of senior care. For-profit companies that have mastered Medicare billing codes and also attract private-pay clients from among the wealthy are vultures.
Describing assisted living as acceptable "if the house is falling apart" is a hoot. Just the folks who are rescued from squalor should move, then? Please.
Why was her grandmother isolated from friends and church, which is stated as a part of the "family crisis" in the headline? There are all levels of senior care in many parts of the country. My church is filled with seniors from group homes, assisted living and nursing homes, who get rides or use the facility shuttle bus. Group living hardly eliminates the possibility of seeing old friends or churches. What a stupid misconception to perpetuate.
In my family I have observed that assisted living has provided the senior with more socializing, not less. Hoping that an $18/hr. aide will offer MaMa her dose of social contact is not really a plan.
There are many choices out there but this dopey article does its best to kneecap any option but one of the costliest - individual home health aides. It might be profitable for the profiled woman, but it is not necessarily the best option and certainly not the most social and inclusive.
Shame on you More. I expect some reporting and some balance before you publish ad copy for franchisees.

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