Alternative Care Reaches Out to Aged

Telephones are the lifeline for Maureen Flak’s booming home health care services company

Maureen Flak’s growing company provides home health care services

By Susan Gordon The News Tribune (February 1, 1988)

Crammed into a converted one-car garage in a quiet, residential neighborhood in Fircrest, is the headquarters of a bustling business where the telephones are seldom at rest.

Telephone communication is crucial to Alternative Care Home Services Inc., a home health-care agency owned and operated by registered nurse Maureen Flak.

 “We don’t go anywhere without the phones,” said Flak, who along with other supervisory nurses, has a mobile phone. The agency’s phone network serves as a lifeline for home-bound clients or Alternative Care personnel who need emergency aid, she said.

The energetic and fast-talking 37-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native started the business on a dare after she was laid off by a competitor which had eliminated its local office because it lacked clientele.

 “That’s crazy, there’s a market out here,” Flak recalled saying in reaction to the April 1985 closure decision by Kelly Assisted Living Services, where Flak had worked as a field-nursing supervisor. Kelly shut down because it had only nine Tacoma-area clients. Flak, however, was convinced a lot more people could be served.

Her business was launched after her principal sounding board, husband Dan, a database engineer with R & D Associates in Lakewood, urged her to put her money where her mouth was. The couple invested $10,000 initially and used some municipal bonds as credit collateral to get the business rolling on Aug. 1, 1985

.At the time, Flak had 15 employees and two clients and ran the show out of her den. The business now has 156 employees, most of whom are employed on a temporary and part-time basis. Each week, Alternative Care serves between 60 and 80 people, providing between 1,000 and 3,000 hours of care, she said. The business had sales in excess of $500,000 during its last fiscal year, which ended July 31, but Flak said It has expanded significantly since then.

Text Box: At a glance

Maureen Flak: proprietor of Alternative Care Home Services Inc., a home health-care agency based in Fir-crest. 

Age: 37.

Birthplace: Brooklyn. N.Y.

Education: Registered nurse graduate of The Kings County Hospital Center School of Nursing/Brooklyn Collage with 162 credits of additional course work, pri-marily in psychology.

Family:  Married to Dan Flak, a database engineer with R & D Associates In Lakewood. Mother to Eric, 15, and Sean, 13.

Responsibilities: Oversees a service-oriented business that grossed more than $500,000 during its last fiscal year, which ended July 31. Alternative Care currently has 156 mostly part-time employees and serves between 60 and 80, people each week.

Company creed: To provide quality care to all patients regardless of background and uphold every patients right not to die alone.
Alternative Care’s growth rate, in fact, has been the most surprising part of the business  Flak, who shares her tiny headquarters with five other women. She is looking forward to moving the business out of the home she shares with her husband and two teen-agers to office space Flak hopes to find in nearby University Place.

The business already serves clients in South King County and Kitsap County, and within the next year or 18 months, Flak plans to set up satellite offices in Bremerton and Spokane. She describes Alternative Care as being in the forefront of changes in the health-care industry, which is more rapidly than ever moving pa­tients out of the hospitals and into long-term care facilities or back into their homes.

What Alternative Care provides is custodial, in-home service to people who can’t manage total independ­ence, she said. Clients include children and the handicapped, but most of the people Alternative Car assists are elderly. The average age of clients is 75. Most need help three or four days each week for two to four hours a day.

Alternative Care provides many levels of service, ranging from performing simple household chores to specialized hands-on care. More than 70 percent of the time, what’s called for is simple assistance in walking, eating and dressing.

At times, Flak and her staff have extended themselves beyond a specific request for assistance, noted Lois Lane, a social worker at Humana Hospital Tacoma. Lane recalled an Instance when an elderly woman was discharged from the hospital just before Christmas. Although she lived alone and was at risk of falling, she decided not to hire an agency such as Alternative Care to help her out.

Nevertheless, Flak and her staff decided to telephone the woman at home in the evenings to make sure she was well. When the phone went unanswered the second night, the agency notified Tacoma police and an Alternative Care nurse met them at the scene. When the police entered the apartment they found that the woman had fallen in the bathroom. The woman was transported to the emergency room and subse­quently was hospitalized.

“Some of the other operations might be less persistent,” said Lane. “That really impressed me, that she (Flak) was willing to do that. She didn’t know if she’d get paid; she didn’t know this lady at all. She really does care about these senior people.”

Kathy Carenbauer, admissions director at Manor Care of Meadow Park Convalescent and Rehabilitation Center, also commends Flak’s work. “Maureen runs an excellent business.. She is outstanding in care,” said Carenbauer, who frequently refers patients to Alternative Care

The agency has a number of competitors. Flak isn’t sure how large of share of the local home health market Alternative Care has captured. One drawback is that Alternative Care is a newcomer in the field and therefore lacks Medicare certification. However, Flak is optimistic that the agency will become eligible when authorities recognize the need. She believes that agency eventually will be able to deliver 5,000 hours of care in the Tacoma area every week.

Flak said she has managed to succeed in part because of her limited overhead, which has allowed her to keep prices 10-20 percent lower than the competition. Alternative care services range from $6.50 an hour for simple homemaker service to $17.50 an hour for a nurse, she said. Staff pay starts at $4.05 as hour.

The business almost hit a snag about a year ago when Flak was forced to turn away prospective clients because she didn’t have the staff to take care of them, she said. But a chance meeting with Sharon McGavick, director of the Institute for Business and Industry at Tacoma Community College, led to a solution to the labor shortage, she said.

McGavick, who calls Flak “a real dynamo,” suggested that she apply for a grant through the job skills program of the state Board for Vocational Education. The state eventually approved a total of $81,000 in funds for Alternative Care’s 15 week training program, which consists of both classroom work and on-the-job training.

Participants learn how to safely move the bedridden from place to place and other basic, nursing-related skills. When the grant ends in September, as many as 150 people will have been trained for Alternative Care jobs, McGavick said.

“Home care is new,” said Flak, who added that the training program has solved her staffing problems. Most of the people seeking home-health-care jobs lack formal training and there aren’t many texts or publications dealing with it, she said. The training program ensures that staff members know the approved methods of care and what is expected of them as Alternative Care employees, Flak said.

Plans have been laid to expand Alternative Care’s educational function by offering a certified nursing assistant training program ap­proved by the Department of Labor and Industries, Flak said.

By providing training opportunities, the company ensures a measure of staff loyalty and at the same time stimulates the individual growth of personnel, Flak said. Many of her staff members are displaced homemakers, single parents with families to support, she said.