At-home elder care business thrives in Aiken

Sunday, May 31, 2009 10:44 PM
Last updated Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010 8:47 PM
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When the red pillows are placed on the porch swing in the morning, Especially Seniors is open for business.

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''I wasn't given the spiritual 
    gifts of some of the things 
    that are needed. That's why I surround myself with great people  who have the skills and personalities to do it.''
    - Robbie Yarborough,
    co-owner of Especially Seniors  Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
''I wasn't given the spiritual gifts of some of the things that are needed. That's why I surround myself with great people who have the skills and personalities to do it.'' - Robbie Yarborough, co-owner of Especially Seniors

Outside of the office, though, the Aiken elder care business is never closed.

Especially Seniors is 10 years old, and it has been in Robbie and Jenny Yarborough’s hands since 2005. Under the tutelage of the engineer-husband/nurse-wife team, it has grown from a niche hobby business into that of an Aiken County-wide employer of 120.

In March, Mr. Yarborough was the runner-up for the Small Business Administration’s 2009 Small Business Person of the Year for South Carolina.

“It was exciting. It was humbling,” Mr. Yarborough said. “The business has been so blessed with people that are great. They’re here for the right reason. Whatever award there is, it is a part of all of them, not any one person.”

“I can’t do it without them. They could probably do it without me,” he said with a smile.

Mr. Yarborough is an Aiken native who spent a dozen years working in the textile industry elsewhere before returning home.

It was a quick transition. It took less than two months to go from mechanical engineer in Greenville, S.C., to at-home elder care operator in Aiken.

“My wife is a nurse by trade; that is a big comfort to me because I came from mechanical engineering. I was used to managing people but knew nothing about health care,” Mr. Yarborough said. “Together, we thought it would be a strength.”

He said the leap was so easy that they took it as a sign that they were on the right path. The business was brought to them , and their house in Greenville sold quickly.

“Here we are, four years later, ” he said.

Taking care

The 100-year-old old house with the porch swing has been the headquarters of Especially Seniors for the past two years.

When the Yarboroughs took over the non medical in-home care business in September 2005, it was in a 400-square-foot office on Laurens Street . It was enough space for Mr. Yarborough and a scheduler.

It had 30 employees then. It has more than 120 now.

He added another desk in the old office and had to walk sideways to get around it.

In February 2007, the office moved to Hayne Avenue – and added personnel.

“Having the space allowed us to put full-time case management in place,” he said. “It is easy for a business like this to become a dispatching place. You have a need and send … with no follow-up. We didn’t want it to be that way.”

Client desires are important and asked up-front. It is such a personal decision to have someone come into the home that even height and gender are part of the comfort equation.

The Yarboroughs took over the business from a family friend who was ready to retire. Word of mouth about Especially Seniors had taken the company beyond the scope of the small niche business it was at its genesis.

“As Aiken developed and the retirement communities evolved, more and more people moved here. The business picked up … it started growing out from underneath her,” Mr. Yarborough said.

The company needed some infrastructure, technology and a business plan, he explained.

Especially Seniors has 135 clients throughout Aiken County. The business considers serving clients outside county boundaries on a case-by-case basis.

“We have some clients that we’re with 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And they may have four employees that are dedicated to them,” Mr. Yarborough said. “We may have another client that we see for three hours once a month. So we’d have an employee with six or seven clients.”

Employees dial a toll-free phone number to clock in. All the employees are never in the same place at the same time, he said.

The service is parallel to that of assisted living facilities.

“Our service is not reimbursed by Medicare at all. It is all private pay and long-term-care insurance will pay for it, if you have it,” he said. “It boils down to whether the house is safe for them.”

Mr. Yarborough said they spend time acting as social worker for potential clients, even if they don’t become a client, to help them in the right direction.

With all the emotions involved, figuring out the financial implications of care and the proper routing – from the hospital to assisted living, or to a rehabilitation hospital or a nursing home – can be difficult for families.

“The right one is different for everybody. It is hard to sort through all that if you’ve never been through it,” he said.

Mr. Yarborough said he leans on his wife, a registered nurse, to deal with matters in the gray areas of health care. Especially Seniors staff don’t provide medical care , although a few of them are nurses. Matters like whether to help a client with a feeding tube create questions of liability.

He sides with caution. “By nature as an owner, I am paranoid, if that’s the right word. All of our employees are bonded and insured.”

Mr. Yarborough said he’s not worried about outgrowing his current location.

“Part of our business plan is smart growth. I know the forecast is that the b aby b oomers ’ needs are going to con­tinue to grow. The potential is there, but we can’t let our growth out grow our infrastructure,” he explained.

He’s been asked whether he foresees a waiting list for services.

“The biggest hedge for us is having enough good employees,” he said. “There are a lot of services around Aiken-Augusta that do similar things to what we do, drawing from the same pool of resources .”

When the Yarboroughs took over the business, the average age of the caregiver was 34. He said he’s intentionally shifted that to 45 by hiring more baby boomers.

Mr. Yarborough is not just a sit-in-the-office owner. He has two clients of his own.

“My skills are limited from my background. They are both men, they are comfortable with me, ” he said.

Most of the company’s clients are female and don’t want male caregivers, he explained.

“I wasn’t given the spiritual gifts of some of the things that are needed. That’s why I surround myself with great people who have the skills and personalities to do it.”

One of those people is case manager Christine Phillips.

“He knows we’re going to do it, but he does check up on us. He’s very thorough,” she said of her boss. “He’s a very compassionate person and really does care about the people that we serve and the people that work for him.”

Family ties

Mr. Yarborough is the youngest of Bob and June Yarborough’s two children. His sister, Ruthie, lives in Greenwood , S.C ., and is married to his wife’s older brother.

The house off Whiskey Road where he was raised is still occupied by his mother. She is a retired school teacher.

Bob Yarborough was a banker, a senior vice president at Security Federal, retiring three years before his death in 2000.

“He was 65. He pulled into the driveway of our home. He turned the car off and never opened the door. He had a massive heart attack,” Mr. Yarborough said .

There is an aspect that the family can laugh at now: “Being a banker his whole life, he was very frugal. He could stretch a penny. He didn’t want to linger on. He knew the cost of lingering on: nursing homes.”

Mr. Yarborough graduated from South Aiken High School in 1989 and headed to Clemson University. He selected engineering because it fit.

“I grew up with this analytical thinking. I was a strange boy in that there was a place for everything and everything had its place,” he said. “I enjoyed tinkering with things. Taking things apart and fixing them. … When my bike chain fell off, I just knew how to fix it. I didn’t need my dad to help me.”

In high school, he did some summer work with a surveying group. He didn’t want to be a civil engineer , and decided that his constant tinkering made mechanical engineering the best fit . After graduation, he went straight to work for Milliken in Greenville.

“I started out as a rotating shift manager. Learn the plant. Learn the processes. Learn the people,” he said.

He was promoted into engineering services, maintenance and improving machinery.

Looking back, he said he got some good training for his current role through a customer service role at Milliken.

Mr. Yarborough met his wife at a family gathering.

“Her brother and I became good friends. We would hunt and fish and they had land to do that on,” Mr. Yarborough said of his in-law’s farm in Dublin, Ga. “Wow, you’ve got a cute sister. So that’s how we met and we had a long-distance relationship. She was there and I was in Clemson.”

Jenny followed him to Clemson when they got married. She graduated with a degree in nursing and worked in the hospital in Greenville.

With her family being Georgia bulldog fans, it wasn’t a popular decision. It was a good financial decision, however, since she was able to get in-state tuition rates.

“She’s a brilliant woman, both common sense and book-wise,” he said.

Their current profession wasn’t a random decision . Her mother was a director of assisted living. Jenny Yarborough grew up in those facilities, spending time there after school. It was like having 15 grandmothers.

“She did develop an early passion for that environment,” he said. “She grew up on a family farm with her grandparents across the street.”

The offer for Especially Seniors came in July 2005. The founder had worked for Mr. Yar­borough’s father at Security Federal. A friend knew that she wanted to sell and knew that Mr. Yarborough wanted to be his own boss.

The Yarboroughs bought the business in September, a month after Mr. Yarborough’s 12th anniversary with Milliken.

“My career at Milliken was wonderful. A lot of different facets other than engineering. Something from each one of them, I’m drawing on now in this job,” he said. “We loved it up there, but after Dad died, Mom was here all alone. There’s a certain comfort that comes from me being here and her knowing that I’m here.”

In the community

As a business leader in the field of elder care, Mr. Yarborough has been tapped for community roles. Mental Health America in Aiken has him on its board, as does Hitchcock Health Care.

He serves on the state board for the Alzheimer’s Association, a National Healthcare Advisory Board. He also serves on the board of the chamber of commerce in Aiken.

He said his “big ones” are the Alzheimer’s board and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“Those are the areas I’ve really had a passion for or really enjoyed putting my time into,” he said. “But all of them are important to me. I’m a part of all of those because they are all important to this community. They all have a function in making sure Aiken’s got services for everybody that needs them.”

Two years ago, he got his mother involved in Alzheimer’s Association work by getting her to do a quilt for a Memory Walk fundraiser. She made a second “career” in quilting.

“I don’t mean avid, I mean rabid,” Mr. Yarborough said, like driving to Amish country in Pennsylvania to look for patterns.

Mr. Yarborough said the community meetings are spread out enough to be manageable. He said they keep him connected to his hometown – and there is a networking benefit.

Outside of community functions and work, the Yarboroughs spend time with family. Their fourth child was born last week.

“A lot of family time. That is our ministry to ourselves, raising good kids,” he said.

Mr. Yarborough said he put aside his fishing, hunting and golf . He said when his children are old enough, he’ll get back into those pastimes with them.

“This last week, I bought my first set of junior clubs for my two oldest because they have expressed an interest in hitting some balls. We’ve been out to the hitting range a couple times to gauge their interest,” he said.

Now 37, Mr. Yarborough has already had two careers and plans to keep the current one for the foreseeable future.

“I’ve learned more about health care, more about aging parents, resources available from just being in the business and helping people through those things,” Mr. Yarborough said.

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.

Robbie Yarborough

Title: Co-owner, Especially Seniors

Born: Sept. 12, 1971, Aiken

Education: Clemson University, bachelor’s in mechanical engineering

Civic: Alzheimer’s Associ-ation state board, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Mental Health America, Hitchcock Health Care

Family: Wife, Jenny; children, Emma Grace, Jay Jay, Cross and Anderson

Hobbies: Fishing, hunting, playing golf


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