Award-winning Ottawa entrepreneur Amy Friesen is all too familiar with the scenario of adult children, busy with their own families and jobs, scrambling to find suitable retirement homes for aging parents confronted by declining health.
“Many families are overwhelmed,” said Friesen, founder and CEO of Tea & Toast, in a teleconference interview. “They’re very emotional, super-stressed. A lot of them are in crisis because they waited too long or didn’t plan properly.”
Since 2014, her company has been advising families of the senior living options available to them, taking a holistic approach toward offering the necessary support and resources.
Earlier this month, Tea & Toast announced a new partnership with Chartwell Retirement Residences, the largest operator in the Canadian seniors living sector. Tea & Toast is now offering its services and expertise to all 13 of Chartwell’s residences in the Ottawa region, from Lord Lansdowne to Stillwater Creek, and from Duke of Devonshire to Chartwell Rockcliffe.
“It’s very humbling, the fact that they’ve taken a chance on us,” said Friesen. “They’ve seen what we do and how we do it. We’re really excited to work with them.”
Friesen, who was born and raised in Napanee, moved to Ottawa almost 23 years ago to study business marketing at Algonquin College. She went on to earn a psychology degree at the University of Ottawa, where one of her courses, the psychology of aging, caught her interest.
Friesen has since devoted her career to helping seniors and working in the retirement living industry. She previously handled marketing for Chartwell’s New Edinburgh Square, located on MacKay Street, off Beechwood Avenue, from 2005 to 2011.
Friesen said she derives a lot of enjoyment from being around seniors and from hearing their stories and learning from them. They have such a caring and curious nature, she added. “A lot of seniors in my world have so much love to give.”
Friesen has been recognized as a thought leader in the relatively new industry of personal retirement living advisors. In 2019, she was the recipient of a Forty Under 40 award. She was also named 2018 WBN Businesswoman of the Year in the emerging entrepreneur category.
“I’m trying to standardize the advisory industry so that people know that we exist,” said Friesen. “We’re all a bunch of small businesses and we’re kind of boots on the ground, trying to help in the community.”
Last year, Friesen founded Eldercare Planners of Canada, a national network of senior living industry experts. As well, she’s been hosting a podcast, Artful Aging, and is the recent co-founder of an online platform, Respiterequest.com, that helps to book respite stays at retirement homes.
Friesen also volunteers as a board member with The Good Companions seniors centre and is a member of the alumni advisory committee at Algonquin College.
When Friesen launched her business almost nine years ago, she decided to call it Tea & Toast. Not only does the name have a comfy-cozy feel but it also refers to the malnutrition that can creep into seniors’ lives due to an inability or lack of interest in preparing proper meals or buying groceries. Instead, they subsist on tea and toast.
The small business has seen considerable growth during the COVID-19 pandemic. The demand for its services has risen by 60 per cent, bringing 19 new partner homes into its ecosystem in November 2022 alone. Tea & Toast, which employs a team of eight, has the highest volume of partnered homes in the greater Ottawa area. “This year, we’re going to be up to about 200 moves,” said Friesen of the number of seniors they’re helping to place into assisted living.
Clients have been feeling more apprehensive during the pandemic, which has been hard on long-term care and retirement homes, and want to make more informed housing decisions, said Friesen.
Retirement residences differ from long-term care homes, which provide 24-hour nursing care and supervision to residents. The community is also required to access long-term care in a completely different way, including wait lists as long as eight years in the Ottawa area, said Friesen.
Retirement communities are privately owned and operated, offering rental accommodation with care and services for seniors who can live independently, with minimal to moderate support. Some offer advanced care services. It’s often a good option for older couples who want to remain together, said Friesen.
Tea & Toast works with family members who live as far away as Europe, the United States and other parts of Canada. The business collects and compiles information from its clients based on such factors as specific needs, preferred location and budgetary requirements. It subsequently nails down the best options. It also helps to guide families through the living transition, said Friesen. Otherwise, someone can spend as many as 80 to 100 hours doing research and having to tour some of the 90-plus facilities in Ottawa, she said.
“All of my efforts are really about surrounding caregivers and seniors with as much love and attention from us to make sure that they’re comfortable with this really difficult decision.”