By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
When his elderly father jumped out of the passenger seat and started walking in the middle of the road Brian Mertz knew he was in trouble.
But it wasn’t until he tried to find help as a caregiver for his father’s dementia that Mertz said he realized he was on his own.
“I started taking care of my dad two years ago and every day I was finding something new I didn’t know or know how to find,” he said.
So Mertz, a U.S. Army veteran, created the Texas Caregiver Support Services website to help answer questions. He also found himself as a new businessman trying to navigate his parents’ care.
“I joined the Chamber of Commerce in 2015 but John (Sazma) from the Fort Bend Star was the first one to reach out to me. He asked if I wanted a booth at the Senior Expo. I’m glad I came,” said Mertz who wants to create geographical books across Texas of ongoing senior expos, caregiver services and research and information that will help a caregiver stay connected to resources.
The second annual Senior Expo, held last week at the Stafford Centre, attracted 66 established and new businesses as well as about 1,000 seniors wanting to take advantage of diverse information all in one place.
It was the perfect storm of vendors seeking customers and business leads, seniors seeking information and reconnecting with old friends, and lots of free stuff.
Fort Bend Star General Manager Diane Strehl said the newspaper created the steadily growing event as a service to seniors and the business community.
Star Publisher Jonathan McElvy was pleased.
“We only advertised and promoted this event in one place – The Star. And with promotion from our newspaper, we were able to drive more than 1,000 people to visit our customers,” he said. “If that isn’t a success story, I don’t know what is.”
As Mertz laid out his table with information about his website www.texascaregiversupport.net, a few tables down registered vascular technologist Terry Zwakenberg was conducting a “carotid ultrasound” on a soon-to-be 65-year-old Robert Bratcher.
The line for the minute-long procedure formed quickly behind Bratcher who never attended an expo and was looking for Medicare information.
“I’ll be 65 next year so I want anything to kind of broaden my perspective on the best plan. I got a good breakfast and I hear the lunch is supposed to be pretty good, too. Now I’ve got this ultrasound done and they tell me I’ve got nothing to worry about. It’s a good day,” Bratcher said.
Zwakenberg is a technologist at the Advanced Health Education Center. He was conducting the medical tests as the Compassionate Care arm of the education center. It was all done in less than a minute. Since they were expecting about 1,000 people at the expo, organizers from Compassionate Care planned on nabbing their share and brought enough for 300 screenings.
While Bratcher was fine, “we found a number of people who need to follow up with their physicians,” said Zwakenberg, who has been a faculty member at the center since 1989.
While some booths provided services, other used raffle drawings, smiles, candy and games to draw people close. Legacy at Falcon Point, an assisted living and memory care facility in Katy, set up a spinning wheel with prizes like free lunches and a trip. Anita Gonzales came out with her sister-in-law and 10 friends for a few hours of fun and information. She screamed with delight at her prize, “you get a hug” said Legacy’s community relations director Debbie Hamilton who approached Gonzales, with arms open wide.
“We’ve just been walking about getting all kinds of info pens and souvenirs, I can tell you who had the best bag – Overture. Everybody was like, ooh where’d you get that bag. They ran out,” said Gonzales.
Overture is the lush senior living community in Sugar Land for people over 55.
With so many companies offering tote bags with their name and number emblazoned across the fronts, seniors could be seen with multiple ad-covered bags many said would be good for future shopping trips. It won’t hurt the businesses either to have walking billboards around the city.
While the vendors provided free goodies, speakers delivered information on popular subjects. Michael Wilhelm, founder and co-owner with his wife Melinda of the “Trusted Senior Specialists” group, provided information on the importance of being prepared and getting help during the seven-week open enrollment period for Medicare, which started Oct. 15.
The Trusted Senior Specialists group provides the information on all the Medicare options free of charge to seniors. They are paid by the insurance companies and are not beholden to any specific insurance company explained Wilhelm.
His said it is important seniors read through their letters explaining benefits because information changes yearly. For example, ambulance service can change from $50 to $200 on some plans. He said their staff is bilingual and they speak five different languages.
“We are here to advocate for you. We have representatives all over who can come to you personally,” said Wilhelm. “Because we are here to work for you.”