Joel Theisen: Helping Seniors Age Well and Live Well

Joel Theisen

I was very impressed with Joel Theisen when I interviewed jim for an article in Twin Cities Business magazine. I interview lots of businesspeople and entrepreneurs and Joel stood out as someone who was doing what he was doing because he sincerely cared about people and wanted to help them. That kind of authenticity and genuineness is all too rare and it comes through loud and clear. Here’s the profile that resulted.


While working for a large national home care company in the ’90s, registered nurse Joel Theisen decided there was a better way to care for seniors. His growing frustration with the wait-till-it’s broken-then-fix-it mentality of the healthcare industry only added to his resolve. In 2004, Theisen raised seed money from family and close friends to launch Edina-based AgeWell Home Care LLC, a company devoted to keeping seniors healthy and living independently.

In Theisen’s view, health involves much more than physically repairing aging bodies. “I felt strongly that we had to start working with our senior population with more of a preventive, planning model that included not just the medical piece but also psycho-social aspects of service,” says Theisen, who cofounded AgeWell with Carole Overby and Beth Nemec. “Current models of care were not delivering the kind of value and outcomes that I wanted to see and that my parents and grandparents wanted to see.”

AgeWell’s holistic Life Care Management model focuses on seven elements of life, including physical health and well-being, cognitive health, social support and finances. “The three elements that I love the best are purpose, passion and who the senior ultimately wants to be.” Theisen says.

After interviewing a senior and their family, AgeWell’s team builds a priority list and action plan around those seven elements and what the senior needs and wants from each one. AgeWell then brings in services and resources to help the senior be more empowered and live the kind of life they want to live. “Just because you’re old doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun and find a lot to get excited about.”

Case in point: Each month, AgeWell makes the wishes of four to ten seniors come true a la the Make-A-Wish Foundation model. “When you become a trusted advisor, you learn what puts the skip in their step or the twinkle in their eye,” Thesien says. “It can be as simple as getting a sundae at the malt stand, getting out to the park and watching the geese, visiting a museum or spending a day with the Minnesota Twins. One woman just wanted to ride in a convertible and feel the wind through her hair. We’ve also coordinated big trips for seniors that enabled them to fulfill dreams that they never thought could happen.”

Unfortunately, most seniors don’t come to AgeWell until a health crisis forces them to. “Our society is more reactive than forward-thinking and planning,” acknowledges Theisen, who adds that almost all of AgeWell’s roughly $9 million annual revenue comes from private-pay or long-term care insurance. “We’re trying to educate seniors and communities to get us involved earlier so we can put a plan in place before a crisis hits. That will help them maintain a higher quality of life instead of being subjected to the roller-coaster phenomenon where there’s a crisis, the family rushes in, the system fixes them, they plateau for a while and then they drop down into another crisis.”

Indeed, more and more seniors have been willing to pay privately for AgeWell’s services because its life care managers are not only working with them to maintain a better quality of life, they are helping them avoid spending more money in the long run on costly options such as nursing homes. “We believe that the best retirement home for most folks is their own home, to live wherever home is as long as possible,” Theisen says.

To raise awareness, AgeWell spent $250,000 to create a Navigation Kit that encourages seniors and their families to proactively explore and discuss the seven elements of AgeWell’s Life Care Management plan. The kits, which are distributed at no charge to anyone who requests them, asks thought-provoking questions designed to give seniors greater control over how they live out their golden years.

The Navigation Kit includes materials from AARP as well as local trade organizations like the Minnesota HomeCare Association and care providers like Aging Services of Minnesota. “AARP contributed materials to the kit because they felt it was a great proactive measure to help educate seniors and their families about planning,” Theisen notes. “We’ve only had the kit out for a few months and it’s been exciting to hear the response from not only the healthcare community but from families and the community at large.”

While AgeWell’s revenues have enjoyed double-digit growth every year, Theisen’s big-picture vision goes far beyond the company’s balance sheet. “Our goal is to break the crisis cycle and be a catalyst for change in how we care for seniors—not only here in Minnesota but across the country,” he says.

With the number of seniors age 85 and over projected to quadruple over the next 30 years, Theisen wants to shift the healthcare paradigm to focus on preventive, long-term life care management. “Ultimately, we want to be a repository of the best information in the market as well as a trusted advisor that seniors and their families can come to whether they need home care or transportation or meals or social activities,” he says. “Seniors need somebody to help them understand the system and be an advocate for them within the system. We meet seniors on their terms and come at it from their priorities and not ours.”

AgeWell’s caring culture sets it apart from competitors. “Most companies in the senior world build very definable need-driven or payer-driven models: ‘If Medicaid pays for that, I can build a business around it,’” Theisen says. “What’s different about us is that our model is built on a platform that isn’t need-driven, it’s about how to create a quality of life.”


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