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A set of wheels and a set of ears

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Wheels and Ears Medical Companions Director Deb Schlueter was inspired to start her company by her own experiences in doctors' offices with her mother and mother-in-law. Drawing on the qualities that make Realtors successful and repurposing them to help local seniors in need, longtime Lake Oswego and West Linn resident Deb Schlueter, a retired Realtor, recently founded Wheels and Ears Medical Companions, LCC.

Schlueter, who herself has had four joints replaced and spent two years in physical therapy and orthopedics offices, said the idea for the service came from her own experiences taking her mother and mother-in-law to their doctor appointments.

Again and again she would see seniors looking disoriented and exhausted and waiting between two and three hours for their rides to pick them up after their appointments after what was already a stressful occasion. Some were even unable to make all the therapy sessions they needed because they couldn’t arrange transportation.

She said she once offered to help one woman contact her ride home, and the woman didn’t even know who she was supposed to call.

Schlueter decided to come up with a better option for these seniors. Wheels and Ears is the result.

Seniors can schedule a ride with Wheels and Ears anywhere from a year to a day in advance of their appointments to get transportation to and from their medical appointments, as well as a “second set of ears” in between.

Once they call its toll-free number, 1-855-4-MED RIDE, a GPS system locates the closest available companions so they are paired with someone from their own neighborhood — a companion who isn’t just a ride but someone to make a connection with.

These companions arrive at the senior’s home 30 minutes before they have to leave for the appointment and fill out a questionnaire with him or her, recording the reason for the visit word for word and reviewing the medications he or she is taking.

By giving this information to doctors at the beginning of each appointment, Schlueter said, it allows them to have meaningful conversations with their patients — a win-win situation.

With their permission, Wheels and Ears companions will also accompany seniors during their appointments and take notes in clear, block print that are then verified by their doctors. Wheels and Ears keeps no paperwork, but the doctor and the senior both receive copies to refer to in the future.

Schlueter said she uses this note system with her own mother, who considers them a lifeline.

After the appointment, companions also provide receipts for Medicare and supplemental insurance providers, a calendar of scheduled appointments, reminder cards and reminder calls. They can also stop at the pharmacy on the way home if a senior needs to fill a prescription.

If they have arranged their own transportation or need help doing so, Schlueter said that Wheels and Ears companions can also be hired for seniors in wheelchairs and accompany them just as they would if they were driving them in their own cars.

Wheels and Ears charges $35 an hour for its door-to-door services, with discounts for multiple appointments a month. The same discount applies for couples that schedule multiple appointments in one month.

While Medicare does not cover transportation costs associated with medical visits, it does reimburse for companion costs in some cases, Schlueter said.

Wheels and Ears held its first training last fall and now works with more than 70 trained companions in the Portland metro and Salem areas, 90 percent of whom are local Realtors.

Why Realtors?

Schlueter, who was a Realtor herself for 39 years, said Realtors come as packages with qualities that suit the companion job description well.

They are busiest on weeknights and weekends and have flexible schedules during the normal workweek when seniors have their appointments. They are also required to pass ongoing background checks, already have insurance on their cars and know the area well, Schlueter said.

“They are used to being advocates for people who are not their relatives,” she said.

Anyone may apply to be a companion, however, and Schlueter said Wheels and Ears also works with many retired teachers, nurses and dental technicians.

Companions are paid $20 an hour for their services but are not reimbursed for gas or mileage, and there are no distance restrictions for rides — a practice that set Wheels and Ears apart from many assisted living facilities, Schleuter said, which often restrict transportation to a five-mile radius.

Schlueter said most of Wheels and Ears’ efforts so far have been concentrated on letting local seniors and their families to let them know the service is available.

The service began taking appointments in January and Schlueter said her senior clients and especially their families have been more than appreciative so far.

For one senior, the service has been the difference between being able to stay in assisted living community and having to move to a nursing home.

For another senior who has two sons — one who lives locally and one who lives in Colorado — it has meant that one brother hasn’t had to shoulder the burden of taking his mother to between four and seven doctor appointments a month.

“If family can be there, we’d rather they be there, but if they can’t, we want them to know there is an alternative,” Schlueter said.

Schlueter said Wheels and Ears will hold training sessions in Eugene and Clark County this fall and that she is hoping to go national with the company within a year. She said taking on pro bono cases is her ultimate goal once the operation is up and running smoothly, so the service never has to turn anyone away if they are unable to pay.

Wheels and Ears has been approved by the state of Oregon’s aging and disabilities network and is applying for elder friendly status through Elders in Action. Some assisted living facilities have begun using its services, and Schlueter is expecting the demand to only increase, especially with more and more baby boomers using Medicare and transitioning to geriatric services.

“The whole system is changing,” she said.

For more information, call 503-318-4540 or visit wheelsandears.com.



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