Cairasu Home Care: Punching back on COVID

Feature Cairasu Dcsba Panel

Healthy aging is the focus of Fatou Ceesay, owner of Dane County Small Business Award winner Cairasu Home Care. As its name suggests, the eight-year-old business is focused on helping the elderly live their best life at home, but the pandemic threw a wrench into the services provided by her licensed caregivers.

Normally, supportive home care includes things like personal care, meal preparation, escorts to medical appointments, and other kinds of companionship, but COVID-19 made seniors, who were most vulnerable to the virus, initially afraid to let people into their homes. Given what the company and its clientele went through in 2020, a Dane County Small Business Award means a great deal to Ceesay.

“It means the world to us because it’s one thing when you do something that you’re passionate about, but this is something we love doing,” Ceesay says. “We know the impact we have on our clients and their families, but to see this kind of recognition from the community as far as this award, that means a lot. It validates what valuable service we provide to our community.

“As we all know, 2020 was a tough year, an especially tough year for the elderly that we serve,” she adds. “As an agency, we’ve been lucky to not have COVID deaths within our clientele, but we did experience COVID illness within our clientele and within our staff, so it’s been difficult either way. But then to see our client families, especially those who are also in health care and other elderly in the community that died from COVID, it’s been hard to say the least.”

COVID care

To prevent as much emotional and physical pain as possible, Cairasu Home Care produced videos about caring for the elderly at home and preventing them from getting infected. With the help of the videos, Ceesay kept in touch with people back in her native Gambia, where the culture is much different. In the West African nation, families take care of their elderly rather than hire professionals to do it.

“Even during this COVID time, one of the things I frequently do is put out videos to talk to people about how to better care for their people at home, and that is both for our Wisconsin community but also our Gambian community,” Ceesay states. “I do different kinds of videos. I do videos in English, and I also do videos in Mandinka, and the reason is that I want to reach out to all of these communities to be able to give them hands-on information that they can use at home.

“This is especially important for people in Gambia because there is no professional care giver,” she adds. “Everybody just takes care of their people at home. So, it would be important that when we have something like this and nobody seems to know what it is, and it’s killing so many people, to get some information from people like us who have been in the industry and who have experience to share our insights with people.”

The videos are a gift that keeps on giving because like COVID-19, they can go viral. Unlike COVID-19, they have generated enough interest that they had people coming back for more, and it sparked an idea for a podcast. The podcast, called Super Aging, is done weekly, and Ceesay interviews experts in the community and sometimes she does a solo where she talks about aging issues or caregiver issues.

“We did have a lot of interest in the videos, and people have shared them in different places,” Ceesay notes. “It was nice to get some emails from people in the community who said, ‘You know, you haven’t shared a video this last couple of weeks. Are you going to share again?’ I’ll respond with, ‘Oh, yes, I will,’ so that tells me there is interest in that.”

Diversity benefits

The events of past year, especially the pandemic and the social unrest, compelled Ceesay to redouble her commitment to female empowerment and aging issues like Alzheimer’s disease.

In 2017, the Alzheimer’s Association awarded Cairasu its prestigious Outstanding Advocacy Award, and for the past eight years, Ceesay has been among the hosts of the annual International Woman’s Day event. “I’ve been known to get into different kinds of processes, including racial issues, but my main focus is women’s empowerment and senior care,” she states. 

Since its inception, Cairasu Home Care has grown to report $3 million in annual revenue, even with an early pandemic lull, and to 15 full-time and 42 part-time employees. Now that the pandemic is gradually fading and public orders are being relaxed, Cairasu will continue the gradual process of, as Ceesay puts it, “getting out of the pandemic slowly.”

The company is in a good place and she’s thankful for that because even though it was deemed an essential business, it did experience a decline in its services during the pandemic’s earliest stages. “People were scared about people coming in and out of their homes, but that was for the first three months,” she recalls. “After that, people knew this is long-term and we have to find a way to adapt to the new, so-called normal because it’s not really normal, but that’s what we have going on.

“We were able to reinstate all of our clients and take in new referrals, and our workforce also has returned to work because some of them took a break because they did not have child care and their kids were at home. So, all of that took place within the first three to four months and from that point on, all we saw was growth and we were very thankful for that.”

The need for elderly care has become more acute as our population ages, but there is a lot of competition in elderly home care, and Ceesay attributes Cairasu’s growth to a combination of factors — the work of her staff in care delivery, which brings referrals, and her determination to reward and value them. Ceesay lists diversity and inclusion among the company’s benefits because as an immigrant herself, she prioritizes D&I and she can offer advice to other employers about the business benefits.

“It is so important to be inclusive within your agency or your company because everybody brings a perspective, and everybody’s point of view is valued,” she explains. “What I would say is to encourage inclusive culture because once you start valuing the people who bring different perspectives, and not turn a blind eye to their contributions … people like to see that their contributions do matter by implementing them, and that gives them the drive to share more, to feel like they’re part of this company or this team, and that their contributions do matter.”

Aging well

In addition to the videos on senior care and COVID-19 prevention, Cairasu has given back to the community in other ways, most notably a new Aging Well Summit that was done virtually in its inaugural year. Since seniors are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, that was a strong motivator for this event, but it’s about all the aspects of senior care for health care professionals and healthy aging for everyone.

Ceesay is grateful to the 300 virtual attendees, the experts who presented, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s geriatric research teams. Another virtual summit is being planned for November of this year, in part because November is Caregivers Month. “That was really, really a valuable thing to put together for the community and it was well received,” she states. “It’s new but we would love to continue it. It’s something we could provide the community ongoing.”

The Dane County Small Business Awards are presented by Bank of Sun PrairieM3 Elevate, and Madison Gas and Electric.

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