An occupational therapist since 1975, the Highland, Michigan, practitioner has worked in a host of settings, including hospital outpatient, private practice, intensive care, neonatal care, and mental health. She created a handwriting project for Kenny REHAB of Southfield, Michigan, that led to her authorship of the book Getting it Write. She also dabbled in early intervention, becoming certified in the Kindermusik® technique, which combines music with family participation to help young children develop physical, emotional, cognitive, and social skills. Yet despite this widely varied experience, she was still trying to find her niche--that place where she could thrive.

About 3 years ago, Audette read something in the Michigan Occupational Therapy Journal that sparked her interest. "There was an article by Margit Novack that suggested that occupational therapists and social workers were the people best suited to help the elderly transition to new homes. I just thought, 'Wow.' The article really clicked with me, and I knew it was something I wanted to do," Audette says. Novack's Philadelphia-based company, Moving Solutions, had enjoyed success as one of the few in the nation that specializes in planning moves for seniors. Audette signed up for a licensing program offered by Moving Solutions that gave her the tools and information she needed to start her own business. Unlike a franchise, Moving Solutions' licensing program allowed her the freedom to choose her own business plan, set her own rates, and tailor the services she offered to match her strengths as well as her community's specific needs.

Armed with her occupational therapy skills and Moving Solutions training, Audette was ready to make her move. Together with her husband Tim, who has a business degree and experience in automotive industry sales and management, she launched Moving Forward, LLC, which serves seniors in the lower Michigan peninsula. "I don't have any business background, so getting started was scary. I kept thinking, 'Is this going to work? How am I going to find clients?" she confides. "My husband would calm my fears, but it was daunting." The pair tried several different strategies to attract clients. One was to set up booths at health fairs to provide information to health care providers, administrators, and others. "It's important to get the [company] concept out there so that people are aware of you," Audette says. "We didn’t get a lot of customers from the health fairs, but we did increase awareness about our services." She also joined her local Rotary Club. 

Again, this connection helped spread the word about the company and even netted it local newspaper coverage. Meanwhile, Tim met with facility marketing directors to make personal contacts and followed up meetings with letters thanking them for their time and reiterating the company's services. Maintaining visibility among the marketing directors took persistence, but it paid off. "That's where most of our referrals come from," says Audette. In addition she joined senior networking groups, visited hospital geriatric centers, and got to know social workers and discharge planners at hospitals. She also believes that getting her name, as well as the company's, published is important for attracting clients: "I try to do a monthly newsletter with health and wellness information that is distributed to past clients, people that have attended presentations, and those inquiring from my Web site. I also try to write articles for magazines and get them published. That gets my name and affiliation out there and gives the company more exposure." In fact, an article Audette wrote about what happens when seniors lose the ability to drive was published recently by Mobility Monthly Magazine.

Although the initial steps were daunting, Audette has seen her business grow. "It's been 2 years now, and the business is going really well," she says. Moving Forward organizes two to three moves a week during the spring, summer, and fall and one to two during the winter. Although the company is involved in the process of moving clients to new homes, employees do not physically move the client. Instead, Moving Forward specializes in managing the move from start to finish, including packing, sorting, and post-move cleanup as well as helping the client locate reputable movers. The process begins with a free, in-home consultation. Audette explains to clients the services her business offers and provides referrals to other services (e.g., auctioneers, donation sites, blind or drapery suppliers) they may need. She tours the home with the client, measuring the furniture and discussing his or her financial, emotional, and physical concerns about the move. 

Using a magnetic board with a floorplan of the client's new residence and movable furniture magnets, Audette helps the client plan where the furniture will go once it is moved. Then she offers help deciding what items to keep, what items should go, and what to do with unwanted items as well as resources and tips to make the move easier. At the end of the visit she provides the client with a written estimate based on the number of boxes and time required for the move. After the client accepts the estimate, Audette sends a large-print contract for him or her to sign, then the parties set a date for the move. Either she or the client contacts a moving company, which provides an independent estimate, to arrange for the move. Some clients are moving into the homes of family members, but for those moving to apartment complexes or assisted-living facilities, the moving dates and times are coordinated with property or facility managers. Clients choose how involved they want to be in the moving process. 

"Some people want help coordinating with the movers and facility managers. Others prefer to do it on their own. We let the clients do as much as they want to by themselves," Audette says. "If they choose that route, though, we offer advice and resources on how to save money." A day before the movers arrive, a Moving Forward team of two to four people goes to the client's home to pack his or her belongings. The packing is done in 1 day, usually in 4 to 6 hours. The day of the move, the team leader may be on hand to assist the client with last-minute details like packing personal items and medications or loading small items into the client's car. "We hold their hands through the process," she says. "We follow the movers to the new place, and our team arrives to open boxes and put everything away. If clients don't have family to help them, we go through a safety check to make sure they can operate all the appliances and that cords and things are out of the way so they won't trip or fall. We also flatten the packing boxes and take them back with us to recycle for the next move. That way, we can charge clients reduced rates because they're basically renting the boxes." Moving Forward also offers post-move services, such as hanging pictures and cleaning out the former home for an additional fee.

Audette believes she has found her niche: "This is the most fulfilling job I've ever had. I enjoy the one-on-one contact with clients, and I enjoy learning about them as we go through the packing process. It's almost like working in a museum. There's all this history on display, but it's even more interesting and real because you have the person who lived it right there with you, telling stories while you're packing. You learn the history of the client's life, the stories behind the objects. You learn about the person's philosophies and why they decided to move. All our clients are grateful for our help. We become like surrogate children without the emotional baggage that can cause friction during these life transitions. At the end of a move, there are hugs all around. It's just an amazing connection." It also is a business with amazing potential for occupational therapy practitioners, according to Audette. "

This is a new industry that is spreading across the country. Right now, there are only about 130 similar businesses in the nation. With so many Americans nearing retirement age, every city will need a service like this in the future," she says. She believes that occupational therapy practitioners have the knowledge and skills to flourish in the senior move management market. "Occupational therapists have the perfect background for this. We have a thorough understanding of the physical and emotional problems people face as they age. And for seniors, the emotional part is a big component of moving that needs to be addressed. [Moving] is a huge transition for them. Our company tries to replicate the environment from one place to another to lessen the adjustment clients have to go through. It's a perfect fit," says Audette.

by: Andrea Brachtesende associate editor, OT Practice

reproduced by permission of the American Occupational Therapy Association OT Practice January 26, 2004 issue/volume:9(2), pages 8-9