By Kitty Merrill

Their personal story could provide hope for lonely singles. Their professional one is all about providing comfort and relief for families caring for elderly loved ones.

Jennie Holman and Erwin Gruber met on in March of 2014. "It was a very serendipitous meeting," Holman allowed, seated next to her partner in a pristine office space in Jamesport.

A New York City realtor by trade Holman was renovating an 1820s farmhouse in Cutchogue when she was contacted by Gruber via the online dating site. His location was listed as Austria and Holman was wary. It turned out, however, that he lived just two miles away from her Cutchogue home. Now they live there together.

Holman's parents lived in Mattituck since 1969, and Holman attended elementary school there before moving to Manhattan. With her parents aging and moving to the North Fork year round, Holman wanted to be closer to them.

Meanwhile Gruber, who grew up in Salsberg, Austria, was a consultant whose career took him to China before he landed on Long Island and made a home on the North Fork.

As their relationship blossomed, the couple considered going into a business together. They looked at multiple business ideas, but they always seemed like the workload would unevenly match their skills, with Holman pulling all the weight in one field or Gruber doing the lion's share in another.

A friend introduced Holman to the Senior Helpers franchise, she recalled, and "It just clicked."

Founded in 2001, Senior Helpers is one of the nation's premier providers of personalized in-home senior care. "It's a feel good business," said Gruber. "You go home in the evening and you made a difference."

Holman marveled, "If you asked me a year ago if I'd get into health care, I would have said not in a million years." But the pair found their niche, operating out of a quaint country cottage on the Main Road.

Senior Helpers, which officially opened in December, is "laser-focused on making seniors not only stay in their homes, but age with dignity," Holman explained. "We try our best to make seniors more independent rather than dependent. . . and we expected to like this, but we never expected to absolutely love it."

With Southold Town listed number five in the state in terms of senior population, the need is great. "There's a huge, huge need out here, on both the North and South Forks," Gruber said.

As soon as the pair opened their doors, he said, "There was such a flood, it was overwhelming." Senior Helpers hopes to bring 50 new jobs to the region in the coming year and serve clients from Patchogue to Orient and Montauk.

Shelter Island is crying out for their service, Gruber informed. He and Holman hope to bring a pilot program there, with caregivers who live on the island taking care of residents there.

But the two won't hire just anybody, nor match seniors with aides heedlessly. Caregivers are put through a rigorous training program and Holman meets with each senior and family to develop an individualized plan. She'll set up an appointment at the office to start, then will visit the family in the senior's home before creating a plan. "We'll figure out what we can do creatively to keep the client stimulated. If a senior suffers from Alzheimer's we want to figure out how to keep the symptoms at a plateau . . . Every client is different and has a different plan."

Matching a caregiver and client is a careful and thoughtful process, Holman said. "We have to match personalities and skill sets to the needs of clients," she explained, telling the story of a caregiver who recently introduced a client to yoga. Once the match is made, Holman makes the introduction personally. "Never ever ever on our watch does a stranger show up. That's just not acceptable."

Hiring is "happening every day," Gruber reported. "We never have enough caregivers. We want to recruit the best people, and make sure they are happy about what they're doing on a daily basis."

While the senior is the client, his or her family members are clients as well. "It's enormously satisfying to be able to say 'I can help you,'" Gruber related. "We can always figure out a way to make our clients' lives better and that offers them a great sense of relief."

Noting that family caregivers and others in the industry often suffer burn out, Holman said that even though their service runs 24/7, "I don't think we'll burn out." The amount of gratitude the pair receives from clients for the sense of relief they provide offsets any exhaustion they feel getting Senior Helpers established.

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