“All roads lead to Rome,” observes Grazina Crisman about why she decided to create www.SeniorsA2Z.com, a website indexing information for seniors. You could say she was inspired to improve on the struggle she went through when searching for resources to help her husband’s 91-year-old aunt after a hospital stay.
Or maybe it was because she possessed a combination of large and small business experience and “a personal passion for organizing and setting up processes.”
Or maybe it was just a bit of jealousy. “My husband is an entrepreneur,” says Crisman. “I thought, ‘Okay, maybe it’s time to do things on my own.’”
But you’d probably be safest to say it was all of the above.
As Crisman tried to find help for her aunt via the Internet, she was surprised and dismayed. “Intuitively most people would say there are not enough resources,” she observes, “but it’s quite the contrary. There are tons, and they are growing exponentially every day.” But despite the wealth of information, it was difficult to pin down what she needed. “It was not organized,” she says, “and there was no one go-to source that presents everything in an easy-to-use manner.”
A year ago Crisman introduced Seniors A2Z, headquartered at 212 Carnegie Center (609-919-6392), to provide just this kind of service. The website organizes information by topic and ZIP code. Let’s say a user wants to find a meals on wheels program that serves Princeton. Having entered a zip code of 08540, the user would click “Browse Categories” and then click on the “Nutrition” link. This will bring up an option for meals on wheels. Click it and you’ll find a list of programs starting with one offered by the American Red Cross of Central New Jersey (609-951-8550).
The site saves time for users because Crisman and her researchers have already done the hard work of scouting the website to find specific details. For the user the search process is transparent and direct — no issues of long searches in complicated state websites. “The site creates a common and consistent interface across the country,” says Crisman. “We do the hard work by tearing apart state and county websites.”
The site is a public resource, free to all users, with no time limits. “It is an online index of information, like the Yellow Pages,” says Crisman. Not just seniors and caregivers can use the site, but also service providers who want to point clients toward services they do not provide themselves. It caters not only to medical but also to lifestyle issues faced by new and prospective retirees who are likely to be tech savvy. These younger seniors, she says, “are still very healthy and not looking to sit down and shrivel up, but looking to take on the next phase of their lives — taking a different job, traveling, or going to school for more education.”
But the site is also a business, which urges private companies and not-for-profits to pay for listings like they do in the Yellow Pages. The organizations decide on the size of their listing and may include a description as well as address and phone number.
Thumbs up? Agencies and businesses are not, however, rated by the site’s owner. “We do not endorse one over another,” says Crisman. “It’s purely at the discretion of the site users. They can take advantage of as many or as few as they wish.”
A system for self-ratings by the site’s users, a la eBay, may be added in the future, but Crisman points out that even a self-rating system is a far throw from actually managing the quality of the services listed on the site. Evaluating quality, she says, is another whole business, requiring the specific expertise necessary to rate a particular area, whether it be hospitals, assisted living facilities, homecare services, or lawyers.
Allowing user comments, however, poses its own problems. Typically users only comment when they have something either really good or really bad to say. And of course any service provider is likely to have some kind of problem with a client, especially in areas where medical issues are involved. But one problem does not necessarily mean that the service provider is not a good one.
Boom. Crisman is a first-generation American whose parents moved to Long Island from Lithuania. Her father was an engineer and her mother worked for the Federal Reserve Bank in its foreign exchange department. After graduating from Hofstra University in 1974 with a degree in mathematics, Crisman got an MBA from St. John’s University in Queens with a focus on operations research.
A baby-boomer herself, perhaps Crisman’s site is, in part, one of contributions boomers are making to their country as the first wave is now in their early 60s. Between now and 2030 the senior population of New Jersey is expected to grow from 1.1 to 1.9 million, and although only nine percent of people ages 65 to 69 need assistance, the percentage increases to 50 for people ages 85 and above. So it’s just the right moment to start preparing, as Crisman has done, for the entry of this generation — which has already been caring for aging parents, aunts, and uncles — to the world of services for the elderly.
With the experience of a year with the site, Crisman has a few suggestions to its potential users.
Figure out what services your senior needs. Crisman’s site offers a section on care management basics, which helps users think about how to approach senior care. The “I need help with” button focuses on specific situations — for example, “Moving, Relocating, Down-sizing” and “Leaving the Hospital.”
“If someone is leaving the hospital and has been stabilized but is not yet ready to go home, that’s when panic sets in,” says Crisman, “and these point to the kinds of resources you might want to consider.”
Start with public information. States and counties run programs for seniors in areas like housing, finances, emergencies, daily contact, and nutrition, or even for groups of seniors with unique needs, like those who find themselves taking care of their grandchildren. The best place to start looking is at aging offices at the state and county levels. Using SeniorsA2Z like the Yellow Pages, users can find the names of particular programs and facilities on large public sites, along with their addresses and phone numbers.
Use knowledgeable professionals where necessary. Different kinds of professionals are listed on SeniorsA2Z. Geriatric care managers provide services similar to aging offices, but on the private side. “They are familiar with resources in and around the area and will tell you what is available and what you need,” says Crisman.
These professionals may be particularly helpful for caregivers working from a distance, serving as their eyes and ears with a parent or other relatives by visiting seniors and helping coordinate their care. Certified senior advisors are similar but tend to help with financial issues like setting up insurance policies and helping with paperwork. Elder care attorneys can help set up wills and trusts.
Compare programs. If families want to move elderly parents closer, or if retirees are looking for a new venue, then they may use SeniorsA2Z to compare states and make sure programs are in place that match their needs.
Get on the phone. Once you have a list of names, Crisman suggests making a few calls to get a feel for different facilities, and she urges people not to be afraid of asking questions. The website can overcome the difficulty of actually locating the resources, for example, finding a handyman that can refurbish a house for an elderly person or locating a business that leases medical equipment. “Once you know what the resources are, contacting them is productive work,” she says.
Stop by and visit. The final step, of course, is to drop by a facility and make sure that both you and your elder feel comfortable with it.
To create the site, Crisman initially started to network with groups involved in senior care services, housing, and homecare as well as retail and financial issues for seniors. “Once I learned what the resources are and had amassed a bunch of information, I designed the index,” she says.
Crisman started the site with information about aging offices in all states as well as detailed listings for New Jersey. She and her staff are now working their way through the details about states with the most seniors, including California, Florida, New York, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania (and Delaware because it is close by). She expects to expand the site to be nationwide in the next few months, using the explicit process she has designed for bringing up a new state.
Optimistic about the role her website can play for its users, Crisman observes, “Pulling information together in one spot that you would have to go to multiple places to find is saving people hours of research.”
Crisman started her career as a computer programmer with Doubleday Book Clubs, the CBS network, and Colgate Palmolive. Then she jumped to the vendor side to run operations and support organizations for sales, which she did at Wang Laboratories, Tandem Computers, Oracle, and a couple of other technical companies. In 2001 she left the corporate world, tired of corporate buyouts where the best jobs went to the buyer’s staff.
Now an entrepreneur like her husband, who helps owners of small, established businesses take them to next level, Crisman’s business is perfect for her skill set. “I’m comfortable with the whole range of business,” she explains, “coupled with a personal passion for organization and setting up processes, taking care of customers, and tracking different things. Everything in my career and personal preferences led to the point of putting this together.”
Making her site a free public service is a way that Crisman is giving back to the community and the public at large. As the hits to the site (now in excess of 300,000) have been growing, she is getting a lot of satisfaction from her work: “It is a very strange yet comfortable and nice feeling to know, one, how the is word spreading, and at same time, to know that as it is spreading, I am accomplishing something for people and helping impact people’s lives.”