This story is part of our series “Rising Tide,” about how – or whether - Rhode Islanders are emerging from the deepest economic recession since the 1930s. The question we’re asking is: does a rising tide really lift all boats, or are some Rhode Islanders still being left behind?
Today, we visit a diner in Warwick, where a group of women have joined forces to beat tough times.
Once a month a group of women gathers here at the Coastline Diner in Warwick for lunch. It’s cozy, the dining room and booths are packed. We’re heading around the corner into the sunroom, where Maxine Hutchins holds a table. She’s waiting for members of her networking group, Seniors Rule, to arrive.
“All the participants in Seniors Rule are all women who provide some kind of service to elders. And we kind of network as a group once a month to support each other.”
Hutchins works for a business called All is Well Home Care. Her typical client is an older person who wants to stay home, but needs a little help.
“Let’s say she’s recovered from whatever injury she had but she can’t do all of the things she did before, like mopping the floor, making her own meals. Things like that. Then that’s where we can come in.”
They can send a caregiver for a few hours, days, or weeks at a time to help with chores. It’s the kind of service insurance doesn’t cover, but can help a senior avoid more expensive assisted living or nursing home stays.
“Business was good 10 years ago. And then all of a sudden business wasn’t so good, in, like, 2008.”
That, of course, is when the recession hit. Hutchins says business dried up.
“Fewer calls, having to work harder to try to generate more business. And I wasn’t the only one. And through my networking I knew other people that were having the same issues.”
The drop in business hit Hutchins hard, too. She almost lost her house.
“At one point I was working part time for the company. So it cut my hours. So I worked part time, I did other things. I survived.”
She hustled. She tried networking events to drum up more referrals, because hers is a word-of-mouth business. But all the schmoozing and socializing didn’t seem to help.
“Mr. Smith would talk to Mrs. Jones about her business. But maybe when it came time to give the referral, he’d give it to Mr. Adams, who did the same thing she did. And that is fine, the old boy network.”
But women weren’t supporting each other, so Hutchins decided to solve the problem.
“So I wanted to create a group….that we helped each other, we boost each other, acting as the one-stop resource would help get us out there to more people, and get results.”
She enlisted women who ran or operated businesses providing services to seniors, each one filling a different need. She set up a phone number, printed cards. And the idea was that Seniors Rule could be a one stop shop for seniors. They call that number, Hutchins figures out what a client needs and whether a seniors rule member offers that service. If so, voila, she’s made a referral. Members refer business to each other, pool marketing dollars, share ideas. The southern Rhode Island group spawned another in northern Rhode Island, and one more in the East Bay.
“I joined last year. It’s a wonderful organization."
Sarah Scaramella has arrived at the diner, as more colleagues join the Seniors RULE table.
“Each person has kind of like a little niche that we all can help with and we all kind of work together.”
Scaramella runs a reverse mortgage business with her brother. Reverse mortgages turn the equity you’ve built up in your home into cash, which you don’t have to pay back until you don’t live there anymore. They’re popular with seniors because they provide extra income that might help them stay in their home longer or pay medical bills. And before 2007, Scaramella says business was good. Maybe too good.
“Anybody could get a mortgage. Literally. And it was out of control.”
In 2008, everything changed, says Scaramella.
“We had to lay off everybody, except for my brother and myself.”
15 employees. She shakes her head. It was an awful time. Everything crashed so fast, she says. But the recovery has been anything but fast.
“Slowly. Slowly slowly turning around. Creeping a little bit at a time.”
As a waiter takes lunch orders, Seniors RULE founder Maxine Hutchins says she’s optimistic about her business. Rhode Island, she points out, is aging. And the trend is toward trying to keep people in their homes longer, and out of expensive institutions.
“Demand is growing. Even if I meet with someone today and they don’t pick up services they might call me next year. They’re not going down in age they’re getting older.”
They’re going to be looking for help, she says, and she wants to point them in the right direction.