Deena Balogh and Associates of Port Richey is a care-giving enterprise with a difference.
Balogh, 50, began her business in 2006, committed to showing the elderly, even those with dementia, that it is still possible to discover new worlds, make new friends, and lift the clouds of depression that often settle over those left infirm and in pain in later life.
"It's so exciting to see changes in people who were often just waiting to die," said Balogh. "I find whatever makes them tick — hot buttons to find a reason to care about life again."
One approach her company uses: It will provide caregivers to travel anywhere in the world with clients who can no longer travel without help.
Though her business is in Pasco County, most of Balogh's clients come from Pinellas County. The company offers numerous care-giving services, some also offered by other elder-care providers: home health monitoring, estate liquidation and helping with transitional moves to assisted living facilities. Balogh also is a licensed professional guardian and does crisis intervention with seniors who are terminally ill, depressed or exploited by other caregivers.
But few other care-giving businesses provide luxury travel for seniors with special needs. Her work as a professional guardian has kept her in touch with social workers who often refer elderly people to her for a chance to enrich the years they have left.
Some of those under Balogh's care, 60 percent of whom suffer from dementia, travel the world. Clients in their 80s and 90s have rented villas in France, Italy and Spain, taken 10-day tours to Morocco, cruised through the Caribbean and made it to the shores of Honolulu.
Robin Bonchi, a registered nurse and complex case manager, is one of Balogh's six full-time employees. She supports and advocates for those with more complex medical issues, ranging from mobility or cognitive impairment to special needs for heart, diabetes and cancer patients.
She also has gone on several trips with clients, traveling with a group through Barcelona and Morocco, and to France to escort a traveler home.
"I'm like a daughter for hire," she said. "It's gratifying to see their faces when they are at a place they never thought they'd see."
Traveling with the physically or mentally impaired is tricky business, entailing extensive planning. Balogh finds international partners, medical providers in countries where seniors have extended stays in villas or shorter stays at hotels that accommodate wheelchairs. The international health providers monitor special diets, dispense medications and handle emergencies that may arise. Caregivers also must be prepared if someone gets ill while abroad and have ample support on hand.
So far, the trips have been successful despite occasional glitches.
"We have fired people who get overseas and forget that the trip is always about the client, not the healthy caregiver," said Balogh.
Winter holiday cruises, which Balogh began five years ago, have been especially successful, since older people are vulnerable to depression during the holidays.
One such traveler, Jean Shephard, went on her first Christmas cruise last December. Deaf and mute since birth, Shephard, 72, resides in Park Place, a small assisted living facility in Dunedin. One recent afternoon she proudly displayed a photo album with snapshots of her trip.
"I loved it!" she wrote of the 10-day cruise through the Caribbean. "I loved cruising from place to place, like Jamaica and St. Thomas, and I loved dressing up for dinner."
Shephard praised her caregivers for keeping up with medicines and giving them to her daily throughout the trip. She hopes, she wrote, to take another such trip this coming year.
"Every traveler has a 24-hour caregiver," Balogh said of all group trips, "but it is also important to hire people from the culture you are visiting."
A recent trip to Hawaii illustrates that importance.
"In Hawaii the culture treasures their elders," Balogh said, "so hiring a native Hawaiian in addition to staff gives our clients an opportunity to be cherished again."
The adventure begins before the trip and continues on the travelers' return.
"To get people excited, we throw a bon voyage party before they go," said Balogh's husband, Michael Hogg, operations manager for the company, "and we make a video of their trip to show them when they return."
Almost all of Balogh's clients live in local assisted living facilities or occasionally a nursing home. The slide shows and videos are shown in those places of residence.
Traveling abroad can be costly. In addition to plane flights, cruise fares or villa rentals, clients pay $40 and up per hour for a guardian to attend them and $75 and up per hour for a licensed professional care manager.
"We try to negotiate the best rates possible with our medical providers overseas," Balogh said.
The villa rentals, available to a maximum of five people, involve one-on-one- caregivers and a cook, as well as medical help in the host country. A nurse visits the villa weekly and a doctor twice monthly. In villas, some of the fees are divided among the clients.
"We don't usually have people in more than one villa at a time," said Balogh, a native of Clearwater who now lives in Port Richey. "This past summer we had a group of people ages 86-96 in Monaco."
Balogh exudes enthusiasm for all the services her company provides.
"If you aren't filled with passion to do this job and be someone's advocate, you just can't do it," she said. "We want to maximize a person's life."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]