FOR someone of Reuben Anandraj Solomon’s age, looking after a community of seniors may not seem like the ideal career move. The lean and soft-spoken 34-year-old had left a promising job in a bank to start a senior care centre.
What could motivate Reuben to make such a jump? Demand, really, although he admits to having a great amount of uncertainty and hesitance when going into the business.
The director of Senior Care Management Sdn Bhd (SCM) first noted the potential for such a service when his family needed to find a place for an aged relative who was living alone in Penang and refused to move with the family. Searching for a comfortable home for his relative wasn’t easy even though the family was willing to pay a premium. Most of what is available in the local market are crowded and understaffed homes for the elderly, he says.
A lightbulb went off – many other families would be facing a similar challenge.
“We can see that there is demand for assisted living for the elderly, ” he says.
Encouraged by his father, Reuben started visiting a few homes, including some retirement homes overseas, to get a better idea of what is available and lacking in the market. He wanted to provide better quality care for senior citizens.
Satisfied with his findings, he pooled together some RM600, 000 from his family and some friends to start SCM.
He found a house in Petaling Jaya that met his requirements for a spacious home that would accommodate a little over 20 occupants. He liked that it was nestled in a residential area, which adds to the homely environment.
“We didn’t know what to expect but we had the support of family and friends. So we invested the time and energy into this, ” he shares.
The centre, which opened its doors in October 2016, reached full capacity within six months. In fact, there was a waiting list after that.
“We don’t want to crowd the place. This is a premium home. And it is a home, not an institution. The care-giving needs to be personalised and old people need the space to continue their lifestyle, ” he adds.
Their services can be so personalised that Reuben’s mother often cooks for the occupants.
By the second year, Reuben knew that the business had the potential to grow further and sought out partnerships to expand its services and grow the brand.
One of the main challenges of operating a senior care home is the high staff turnover. And understandably so – it doesn’t provide much of a career progression for young staff and does not reflect the same prestige as, say, working in a hospital would.
“So we need to improvise by offering above-market rate incentives and benefits to retain our staff, ” he says.
While this increases its operating costs – wages make up 60% of its operating cost – Reuben concedes that it is a necessary step to ensure that SCM has enough caregivers to provide personalised care.
It tries to maintain a ratio of one caregiver to two residents.
The company also works closely with universities and colleges, particularly those that offer caregiver programmes, to have their students sent to SCM for their internship.
It also engages the services of retired nurses and matrons to ensure that it has experienced staff to handle its old folks.
Care-giving can be quite a thankless job and getting passionate employees is quite crucial in ensuring quality service for its customers.
“We need a mix of caregivers. We need males and females. And we need experienced staff as well as younger caregivers because you’ll need physical strength to help lift up some of the old people, ” he says.
Reuben hopes to also offer job opportunities to caregivers from other states looking to work in the Klang Valley.
To help its staff focus on care-giving work, the company has invested in technology to ease administrative and reporting work. Its inventory is digitised to automate stock-taking and it has developed a software that allows family members of its occupants to monitor their vital signs and keep track of updates.
Reports have noted that Malaysia is at risk of becoming an ageing population. This would mean greater demand for aged health care and services.
This trend gives SCM plenty of room to grow in the future. As it is, it is already running at full capacity.
“When we first started, there were not that many such homes in the market. But we can see that they are now coming up. The demand is there. People want quality homes with assisted living for their elderly and they are willing to pay, ” says Reuben.
Notably, SCM’s customers are from fairly well-to-do families. Fees per month ranges from RM4, 000 to RM5, 000.
Having gained some experience in the market, SCM, Reuben says, is now in expansion mode.
It is in the midst of setting up its second centre in Kuala Lumpur. The home, which took up a capital of RM1mil, has a capacity of over 50 beds.
Once in operation, the centre in KL will certainly double its revenue. SCM’s turnover currently averages at about RM1.1mil.
He is looking at another five centres over the next five years, with homes ranging from 20 to 50 beds. He is also hoping to venture into states such as Penang and Johor, where he sees healthy demand.
“We could expand our services to include day-care services where families can send their parents over during the day when there is no one at home to take care of them while they are at work as well as rehabilitation.
“But we will have to adjust our services based on the needs of the market that we will be in, ” he says.
All in all, SCM is turning out to be a much bigger business than Reuben had expected it to be.
But the business is not without its challenges. For one, getting the right employees will be difficult.
Additionally, funding at the moment is still largely “out-of-pocket”.
“At the moment, our locations are rented spaces. We’d like to buy them but funding is a bit of a challenge. Banks don’t really understand this business and the industry is not very well known yet, ” he says.
And unlike countries such as Australia and the US where retirement homes are well established, Reuben notes that there is still a stigma here about sending one’s parents to live in homes.
But as more couples juggle between working full-time and taking care of the family, Reuben foresees a growing acceptance for these homes.
He hopes that there will be more support from the government and the community for this sector in order for senior citizens to continue enjoying their lifestyles well into their old age.
“They need to maintain their lifestyles. We keep them active with exercise and we bring them out for movies sometimes. Their lives cannot stop just because they are old, ” he says.
He also hopes to see more space allocated for the old folks, such as space for centres in new townships, which could also be a growth avenue for SCM.
And what is it like for a young man to be hanging out with the old folks so often?
“It can be challenging. But after a few years, you can understand them better. They can be child-like most times so you have to try to match their lifestyle.
“I think we have done well with our services. I’d say our winning point is that we’ve converted some of the short-stay occupants. They want to come back. So we know our services are quite up to the mark. You need to treat them with respect and dignity. They are our customers.
“And we hope to be a market leader in this senior care segment, ” says Reuben.
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