The Wheelchair Executive: How I Embraced my Trauma and Plan to Change Home Care

I was only three miles from home, finishing up one last 50-mile autumn bicycle ride before the weather turned bad. But on November 26, 2011, everything I could possibly imagine turned bad. My buddy Zach and I were rounding a curve on a quiet road in northern New Jersey when an SUV suddenly barreled toward us. The driver fell asleep just after 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving weekend. She took out Zach first, shattering his hip and hurling him so far he nearly landed in a nearby creek, then she hit me head on without braking.

By all accounts, she killed me, but I refused to die. There would be times though, when I wished I had.

Three and a half years later, I still can't get out of bed and begin my day without help. I am a paraplegic and will never walk again.

When I first returned home after five months in the hospital and rehab, I couldn't do anything on my own. The hospital set us up with a health care agency that provided caregivers and nurses covered by our insurance. After six weeks, despite the need for a lifetime of help, the benefits ran out.

I started asking around about finding a caregiver at less than the $25/hour agency rate. I found out that not only did so many others need daily care -- albeit many were much older than my 51 years -- but they also preferred to hire a caregiver on their own. The problem was there was no good way to do that.

That's how I came to develop my start-up, LeanOnWe, a selective network of carefully vetted caregivers who are hired by and work directly for a family. No middleman, lower costs, easy management -- and my uniquely experienced staff to help. All families calling LeanOnWe speak to staff members who have either trained caregivers, hired caregivers for their family, or received care from a caregiver.

It's a model that benefits not only the recipients of care, but also the caregivers. When caregivers are employed by an agency charging $22-$25/hour, they typically earn half that -- barely above minimum wage. It isn't that the agency is taking you for a ride, but rather the expense embedded in the agency system is enormous.

As baby boomers age, the demand for home care will be more acute, but what about the supply? What is the financial incentive for people to choose this line of work at $10-$12 per hour?

Christina Irving, a social worker and family consultant with the non-profit Family Caregiver Alliance, told the San Francisco Chronicle this year that as many as half of all families that hire caregivers for senior relatives do so informally, relying on word of mouth or their own advertising, rather than an agency. Clearly, the agency system is broken, and I have found a better way for families to find the right caregiver.

I realized that if I could combine the key factors of higher pay for caregivers and lower cost and more control for families, with the peace of mind an agency offers for backup, then LeanOnWe would address a national problem head on.

From where I sit, literally, in my wheelchair, I know that a thoroughly vetted network of experienced caregivers is a welcome option. At LeanOnWe, that means selected caregivers have undergone top-of-the-line FBI fingerprint background checks and families needing care review a full profile and professional video of each caregiver to help them hire someone who's a good fit for training, skills, certifications, and experience.

It is working remarkably well.

The feedback from industry professionals, hospitals, rehab centers, physicians, geriatric care managers, and nursing homes has been tremendous. People couldn't believe that something designed in this way didn't already exist. That hit home. More importantly, families have been thrilled with how easy LeanOnWe makes it for them to directly hire experienced caregivers who fit their needs. It is scary to put my heart and wallet on the line for LeanOnWe, but the feedback confirms that I am really onto something.

We named our company LeanOnWe as a play on the Bill Withers song, but also as an acknowledgement that one needs to lean on all of us when support is needed.

Each morning, my caregiver comes to my home, helps me out of bed, and gets me ready for the day. I lean on her -- and push on.