Published by Ventura County Star on February 12, 2017
“Help Unlimited! We do the ordinary and the extraordinary!”
So blared the classified advertisement in the Ventura Star-Free Press, promising to any and all readers that the newlywed couple that had placed it would be happy to do anything that anyone wanted them to do — from walking dogs to mowing lawns, from cleaning houses to stripping paint.
Little did the newlyweds — Gayle and Jack Bertsch, of Ojai, a teacher and engineer, respectively — realize that their ad, circa 1975, would evolve into Help Unlimited, a business devoted exclusively to providing in-home care to the homebound, employing nearly 250 and serving clients from Santa Maria to Westlake Village.
“All we wanted to do was help people, and do it as a couple,” Gayle Bertsch said. “We had no idea it would lead to this.”
Now, entering their 42nd year in what remains a family-owned business, Gayle and Jack — desiring to step back from the day-to-day operations — have appointed their daughter, Ariel, as Help Unlimited vice president. She grew up working in the business, and is dedicated to building upon the legacy established by her parents.
“I have always loved seeing my parents’ commitment and passion to caring for and serving others,” said the 33-year-old only child of the founders. “I enjoy working with people, building relationships, and in the caregiving business, it’s all about treating each other with respect and integrity. I owe my parents a huge debt for making that so important.”
The couple's entry into caregiving came as a result of their reputation for doing all of their jobs — however big, however small, however odd — with quality, dedication and integrity. That’s why a Ventura hospital discharge planner — who was impressed with what others had said about Help Unlimited — asked if the Bertsches could provide live-in assistance to someone who needed help with the daily tasks of living.
“That wasn’t our expertise,” Gayle said, “but we found her someone phenomenal. And pretty soon, we were getting calls from hospitals and others wanting care for people in their homes, so we worked super-hard at finding wonderful people — people with greater skills than we had — to do what we were being asked to provide.”
From there, the business grew.
“It was always a needs-driven business,” Gayle said. “Whenever I heard about a need, I wanted to fill it. And as the business developed, Jack and I felt like our mission to help people was being fulfilled.”
With offices in Ventura and Santa Barbara, Help Unlimited now provides professional caregiver assistance with dressing, exercising, shopping, meal preparation and other tasks that clients are less able to do for themselves.
“A lot of our service,” Ariel said, “is about offering companionship as well as assistance with the tasks of daily living. Trust is a big component of this business because you are dealing with individuals and families who are in a vulnerable situation, like clients who have dementia. And we always do random checks and follow up constantly to strengthen our relationships with our caregivers and clients.”
Over the years, Help Unlimited has served more than 10,000 families, establishing a toehold in what is becoming an increasingly needed service, given the influx of baby boomers at or nearing retirement age (to say nothing of their parents).
A recent analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute stated that by 2020 the U.S. will require 1.6 million more direct-care workers (including nursing, home health and personal-care aides) than in 2010 — a 48 percent increase.
But meeting that need will be challenging because caregiving — whether done by a professional or by a family member or friend — can be physically and emotionally demanding.
“Burnout is a real issue in this business,” Ariel said. “You have to love it from inside, from your heart, in order to stick with it and do it well.”
And firms seeking to enter the market need to look beyond the bottom line.
“A lot of firms come and go in the caregiving industry,” Ariel said. “Over the years, people have looked at the aging baby boomer market with dollar signs in their eyes, but you can’t look at caregiving that way. You have to be passionate about meeting the individual’s health needs, and it can be hard to care for people who are not at their best. In home health care, passion and attention to detail is a requirement of good service.”
Added Gayle: “It’s a very competitive industry. Forty years ago, we were about the only ones in town, and now the industry has grown so much, which has necessitated the need for more regulation.”
Among the most significant new laws is Assembly Bill 1217, the Home Care Services Protection Act of 2013, which provides for the licensure and regulation of private home care organizations in California (starting July 1, 2014) and requires home care aides to be certified (as of Jan. 1, 2015).
“And that’s a good thing,” Gayle said, “because we were doing criminal background checks, fingerprinting, hiring only licensed caregivers, obtaining the necessary insurance — all of those things years before they were mandated. We’re talking about people’s health, their quality of life, and the trust they and their families place in you. So you can’t do it with both eyes on the bottom line.”
At Help Unlimited, the focus is on making sure the employees, as well as clients, are treated correctly.
“My parents have employed a lot of great people, many of whom have been with the company over 20 years, both office and field staff,” Ariel said. “And I enjoy being part of the company culture and staff dynamic, and seeing how much everyone cares about each other and our clients. Working has to be enjoyable in order to be done well, and that means treating each other as well as clients with respect and integrity.”
Now into its fifth decade of service, she said, Help Unlimited is “focusing on what we do great, and deepening our relationships with our clients and staff. We listen to the market and try to deliver high-quality service.”