Five years ago, Barb Achenbaum considered creating a company that would help adult children understand important parts of their parents’ lives.
A Chicago native who earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Princeton University, she’d been living in New Canaan for about 10 years and had come to know firsthand what it meant to help organize finances, healthcare and estate planning after taking on responsibilities for both her own parents and father-in-law.
Just at that moment, the position of executive director at Staying Put in New Canaan opened up and her husband, Jonathan, encouraged Achenbaum to apply.
“But I said, I hadn’t had a job in 23 years because I had been a professional volunteer,” Achenbaum recalled on a recent morning from a conference room in Staying Put’s Pine Street offices. “I had done a lot, I was involved in the PTA, Encore, and all of these different organizations. It’s a real job, but not a paying one. So I said, who’s going to hire me? I’m 55 years old and I haven’t worked at a paying job.”
“And so I interviewed with everybody and they were all in their 70’s and 80’s and they said they liked my youthful enthusiasm and they hired me,” she continued with a laugh. “It was just a super win-win because I wanted to work with seniors and I wanted to help people who were addressing issues related to aging.”
And she’s been doing just that.
This month, Achenbaum marks five years in her position at the head of Staying Put in New Canaan.
A marketing professional worked for 10 years at Quaker Oats as brand manager of Cap’n Crunch cereal as well as in corporate communications, Achenbaum prior to moving in New Canaan in 2003 had also spent five years at a nonprofit that worked with parents and kids with special needs.
She left the working world to raise her three daughters, now ages 30, 28 and 25 (“they’re all employed and they all live in New York–I am very proud of them”), and has carried a lifelong affinity for seniors.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect,” Achenbaum said. “In our family there was a tradition of really getting together with the family and being respectful of the older generation. We did a lot of family reunions, and so I think I always just had a strong sense of how important seniors are to our community.”
And in her job at Staying Put, whose mission is to ensure that seniors can live safely in the community as they age but also to be a resource on aging for the broader community, Achenbaum said she has come to love not only the seniors served by the organization (it has about 250 members with some 70 or 80 getting help on a regular basis) but also the 125-person volunteer force.
Those volunteers are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, Achenbaum said, “empty nesters sometimes and then also a lot of recent retirees.”
“What I love is when you have a nice retired man who is 70 and he goes and drives this lovely 85-year-old woman to Anthony’s to get her hair done and she comes out looking great and sits in the front seat and he drives her home,” Achenbaum said.
“I think it’s as much of a win-win, achievement and a great feeling for the driver as well as the member. So that’s what I love. I love that interaction. I love when you connect people. We have certain members who had needs and then we found a volunteer to help them and now they’re off on their own and one of our members is turning 100 this week and she’s made this great relationship with our volunteer and she takes her to Broadway shows. This woman is pretty amazing. But you know, they formed this bond. Which is a lot like a child-adult bond and that’s a lot of what we do. We help people who don’t have children nearby as well as those who do.”
Achenbaum understands how difficult it is to be an adult child of parents who have needs when you’re also raising your own children, trying to make sure everyone is happy “but it can be very stressful.”
“Especially if you’re a caregiver on a regular basis and your kids are pulling you in one direction, so we try and do as much as we can to help educate those adult children,” she said. “So we do programs at the library and we do what we call ‘Necessary Conversations.’ Topics like, Should we take the keys away? Do you know what your parents end-of-life wishes are? You know, difficult conversations that really if you have them, are so beneficial if you have them as people move forward. Which is what I did with my parents and where it all got started.”
Through Staying Put, Achenbaum said she has come to know New Canaan more intimately than she did in her first 11 years living here. One piece of that has been coming to understand how many older people in New Canaan contribute to the community.
“Some are still working, a lot have just been around for a long time and they’re such an important part of our community,” Achenbaum said. “That’s probably the thing I love about my job. I have gotten to know people at all age groups. You know. I know people who are at Lapham, at the Human Services Department, the Getabout, and all of these organizations that are supporting seniors, and it made me realize what an incredible place this is to become and older person.”
One major reward of working as executive director of Staying Put is being part of an organization that helps people on a regular basis and makes a difference in their lives, she said.
“One thing that I learned and have seen at work which has been very satisfying to me is that there are a lot of people in town that have needs,” she said.
“We have a lot of members that like us and pay their dues but they don’t really need us much. They might call us for a referral for a vendor—we have a great vendor referral list. Or come to our events. But we have people who really have needs. They need transportation and they can’t drive anymore, don’t have family nearby. The Getabout is a good option. Still, some people need what we call a ‘friendly assist’—you know, helping them to the door or into the office.”
Asked what has surprised her about being part of Staying Put, Achenbaum said she didn’t realize before “how incredibly vigorous and vital many people in their late 80’s and 90’s are.”
“Because they are still some of our drivers,” she said. “Obviously you see a real difference in some people and you watch people that are in pretty good shape and you watch them decline and that’s difficult, but we can be helpful there as well. Because we reach out to the adult children in that case, too, if we have permission and say you know, we’re a little worried about your mom. And often we help them get on a path where they’re making sure their parent is safe.”