An Interview with Dr. Ellen Brandt

Interviewer: Hi, Ellen. So what’s this I hear about your being a doctor, a lawyer, and an Indian chief?

Ellen Brandt: Vicious rumors! But I am a Ph.D. – from Penn, with a specialty in early American cultural history. Elder lawyers are among my colleagues in my current role as a senior services provider. And it was an interview with a 100-year-old Indian chief – and several other Centenarians – that first got me thinking about elder-oriented businesses and how important they’d be to the future of this economy.

Interviewer: Tell us more.

EB: I’ve been a heavy-volume magazine writer for several decades now. About 20 years ago, I did what was then probably the first major US magazine cover story on Centenarians, folks who’ve reached their 100th birthdays or more. Parade Magazine sent me all over the country to meet these amazing people.

Among them was the 102-year-old Chief of the Crow Tribe, Robert Yellowtail, whom I interviewed in a tribal nursing home in Wyoming. He remembered going to Washington in the early 1900s to cement a treaty with the US government and camping out in a tent and a sleeping bag right on the National Mall.

Chief Yellowtail died before the story was published, so Parade cut out the section about him. But I interviewed many other fascinating folks, like a tiny, very refined 107-year-old African-American lady from Cincinnati, Ella Miller, who strolled her neighborhood on a 3-mile “constitutional” rain or shine, and 101-year-old Philadelphian Julius Adler, a prominent civil engineer, who didn’t retire until age 95 and still dressed formally in suit, vest, and tie to regale guests over sherry in his impressive library.

After this story was published, in the crowd-frenzy of media then and now, I became an instant expert on the very aged and was asked to do dozens of follow-up stories for publications large and small. Centenarians who bowl. Centenarian RV enthusiasts. Centenarians of Boston and Albuquerque and Greater Los Angeles. Methodist Centenarians. Baptist Centenarians. Centenarians Who Skydive – OK, I made that last one up!

Interviewer: And it got you thinking about senior services?

EB: It did. Because I also talked to a lot of gerontologists – academics who study the aged – and geriatricians – doctors who specialize in their care. And every single one of them was concerned back then, 20 years ago, about a coming crisis in coping with our changing demographics, especially as the vast Baby Boom generation – to which we belong – starts to get seriously elderly.

That’s not for awhile yet. Despite misconceptions among some young people and even some members of the media, we Baby Boomers will only turn age 46 to age 63 in 2009.

But the absolute number of extreme elderly is already increasing rapidly among those in our parents’ generation, due to higher fitness levels, better treatment of various medical conditions, and unexpected factors, like increased immigration.

Interviewer: When did you move into the senior services sector yourself, and what are you doing now?

EB: About two years ago, I started a service called Lifestories Limited, videotaping the autobiographies of mostly people over 75, both very healthy seniors and those who are more frail. I’m sometimes hired by my subjects themselves, sometimes by their sons and daughters, and I’ll happily tape in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities.

I’ve tried to position myself as ultra mass-market in this niche. There are PR-people who market do-it-yourself “kits” – essentially scrapbooks plus lists of questions – at the very low end. But if you can tape your parents yourself, you don’t need a “kit.”

Then there are the wedding photographers, almost all without skills as either historians or journalists, who charge many thousands of dollars for videotaped chats with their subjects – extremely pretty but sorely lacking in substance.

I believe I charge an exceptionally reasonable price, which nearly anyone can afford, for a full videotaped autobiography, the end product being a one-hour DVD with 20 copies included in the package. I also tape married couples and groups of brothers and sisters.

Interviewer: Has the more traditional senior services community embraced your concept?

EB: They have. I’ve made many “friendly colleagues,” as it were, among social workers, nurses, assisted-living managers, nursing homes owners, physicians, and elder law attorneys. One of the most prominent elder lawyers in the country has just hired me to videotape his mid-80s Mom and Dad in Florida.

I’ve also established a periodic “history seminar” geared to folks over 80, which I’ll be presenting as a program for all kinds of senior residences, churches, and synagogues.

And I’m working on a program for mortuaries, sort of a “Lifestories After Death,” in which relatives and friends of deceased loved ones, with a clinical psychologist present, reminisce on videotape as part of the bereavement and healing process.

Interviewer: I hear you have dreams of a Senior Services Empire.

EB: Well, I was Imperatrix (Empress) of my high school Latin Club! If I can get some venture capital or big chain backing, I do have ambitions to move considerably beyond what I’m working on now.

I recently wrote a story called “Summer Camp for Seniors,” with perfectly true anecdotes about how dismal the average “enrichment” – i.e. activity – program roster is at even the most chichi nursing home or assisted-living site. Retired teachers and doctors and lawyers and small business owners – people certainly worthy of everyone’s respect – are essentially treated like kindergarteners, herded into endless games of Bingo or balloon volleyball or taken on exciting field trips to Red Lobster or Dollar Tree Stores.

The story, which I expect will get widely reprinted, has garnered uniformly favorable comments from professionals and residents’ children alike.

As for residents themselves – they’re not encouraged to use computers! In many cases, sites actually ban their residents from having even personal computers, as if any exposure to the Big Bad Outside World would somehow decrease the ridiculous amount of control some site managers wish to maintain over their aged clientele.

Interviewer: That’s absolutely incredible.

EB: It is. But to an entrepreneur, an unmet need means an unmet opportunity. I intend to try to get backing for a turnkey management company which will come in and handle all of a site’s activities, including computer and fitness activities – virtually everything except food service, nursing, and social work.

I think a competent, well-capitalized management firm could handle things better, more efficiently, and even cheaper than what is in place now.

Interviewer: How so?

EB: Just on the staffing front, there is now an extraordinary labor pool of very well-educated, sophisticated, and experienced academics and other top-flight professionals who are either recently retired, unemployed, or under-employed.

At the same time, assisted-living, independent-living, and other elder sites more or less always have extra – sometimes a lot of extra – space on hand.

Through my company, you could have – instead of the junior-college-trained “recreation” majors who typically handle activities now – former college professors or high-school principals or senior teachers taking over these slots.

To entice them, you would offer an on-site apartment and full board for them and their trailing spouses, plus maybe a company car, which would allow you to pay far lower salaries than you probably pay the unqualified recreation directors you have on-site now.

These sophisticated, superbly-educated women and men would be trained by us to take advantage of the latest research on the elderly intellect and how to stimulate it, on lifelong learning, and on physical fitness. We would work to establish close links for each site with nearby colleges and universities, medical centers, cultural institutions, fitness trainers – you name it! – the resources available in the greater community, whether you’re a rural site or located in a big city.

We’d do a Lifestory videotaped autobiography for every resident, offer frequent guest lecturers and seminar-like discussion classes, and provide computer banks and computer training.

In short, we would strive to turn every senior site we managed into nothing less than a University for Elders.

Interviewer: What an exciting and ambitious concept. But will you face resistance from current sites?

EB: Of course. There always is to new and innovative ideas. But I think there’s a direct parallel to – of all things – the handful of firms which now manage America’s prisons on a turnkey basis.

I clearly remember when the idea of a prison management firm was first being floated twenty or so years ago, when market penetration was essentially zero. Everyone knew that both the Federal government and the states were having problems running their prisons cheaply and efficiently. But there was extreme reluctance to turn them over to outside management.

Well, I now understand that something like 80 percent of all prisons are managed by outside firms on a turnkey basis. I think once the initial resistance is overcome, the concept of allowing outside professionals to manage one’s senior sites will meet with similar success.

Interviewer: You clearly like to plan a few steps ahead.

EB: In a time of rapid change in virtually every sector, I think the true keys to entrepreneurial success are creativity and flexibility.

Interviewer: I think you told us that your career as a journalist represents that.

EB: It certainly represents the strange twists Fate can hand you! My previous writing output had been essentially academic articles for academic journals. But when I moved to California in the 70s, it was the heady Feminist years when every day, another woman seemed to be the first-this-that-or-the-other.

So I conceived a women’s page column – those were the days when every newspaper had a women’s page – called California Woman, where I profiled people like the first woman to manage a National Forest, the first female prison warden in the state – I remember she wore a pink, fluffy sweater – and the first woman to pilot a traffic helicopter for the morning commute.

That was in Los Angeles, and her name was Pamela, a lovely blonde Englishwoman. She took me up with her one morning, and whenever she saw something interesting on the highway, she’d swoop down, happily commenting, “Look at that great accident!” Before this market crash, the scariest experience of my life.

So back to my serendipitous career progression: One of my columns profiled a hotel owner in the Sierra Nevada whose hotel had a resident ghost named George. I got a call from one of the leading supermarket tabloids, possibly the National Enquirer, possibly the Globe, asking if I would write a little story for them – just about the ghost!

I did. They loved it. And to make a long story short, for a couple of years, I became a very high-volume writer for all the tabloids. My specialty, which basically no one else had back then, was finding serious business-oriented articles and turning them into catchy material the tabloids could exploit.

For example, I reported on the very first talking supermarket scanner, at a Ralph’s Supermarket in suburban California. My favorite was “Teacher’s Life Sucked Away By Killer Weed,” which was about an unfortunate victim of an epidemic of water hyacinths crowding an Alabama river.

Serendipity struck when the Executive Editor – second in command – at one of my tabloid clients was named Editor-in-Chief – first in command – at a major women’s magazine. He needed someone to do a weekly consumer finance column, a weekly careers column, and anything else they cared to throw at you.

The magazine in question is the most tabloid-y of the women’s mags, in that it sells primarily at the supermarket counter and is geared to a broad, general audience. But you needed a solid finance and business background to produce the material.

So there I was: a volume tabloid writer, a women’s page newspaper columnist, an Ivy League Ph.D., and someone with corporate financial experience. To be frank, I didn’t have much competition!

Interviewer: Do you have any advice for your fellow Baby Boomers discouraged by the current economic outlook?

EB: Gosh, No! Other than banding together and taking over the Planet again.

Seriously, I think our generation will just lick its wounds, think things over, and start getting very creative again about rebuilding this economy – and our own savings accounts – in ways, shapes, and forms that are better than those that have gotten us into this mess.

I think everyone now acknowledges that an economy that depends too heavily on financial services at the expense of every other sector is not building on a truly solid foundation.

Now we’ll turn to all those other sectors that have been neglected for far too long. I’m concentrating on senior services. Others will help rebuild manufacturing and agriculture and energy and healthcare and education.

And I have no doubt whatsoever that we Baby Boomers are going to completely redefine and reshape what Aging in America is all about.

Interviewer: What about the “Millennials,” recent graduates and new employees, who are starting their careers in a time of economic malaise?

EB: It may actually be a fortunate turn of events. Instead of starting out on safe, pre-ordained career paths based on their college coursework and finding out ten years later they hate where they are, they’re more or less being forced to take longer, more circuitous career paths. That should enable them to explore, to try new things out, to fail and succeed in ways they may not have dreamed of yet.

As they say, You Learn From the Journey. Today’s beleaguered Millennials may be far luckier than they think they are.

About This Publication: This story, In an Economy – And a World – Gone Haywire, was printed at Baby Boomer Knowledge Center on May 9, 2009.

Since I retain all legal rights to the story, I’ve decided to “bring it home” to EllenInteractive.

Readers who enjoyed this story might want to read “Recession? What Recession? Not in the Senior Services Sector.” Please go to:

Also see “Summer Camp for Seniors” at:

And for Ellen’s new – and already controversial – series, Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation, please go to: