Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Anthony Harden
As any family that has an elderly or disabled loved one that they are caring for knows, getting the help and care required can often times be a struggle. Facilities aren’t always the answer, and affordability is always a concern. In a small office park in South Asheville, a family run business strives to offer an alternative that is both innovative and authentic, creating products that are advanced, and operating with a genuine purpose that gives you the warm fuzzy feeling of trust and hope.
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]tepping through the doors of SimplyHome, located off of busy Hendersonville Road, there is a calming and serene feeling, a bit unexpected for a technology company. New cutting edge technology might conjure up images of sharp modern art and industrial décor. Yet the SimplyHome headquarters in Asheville fully lives up to its name and their philosophy of providing the comfort and protection you can expect in your home.
The first interaction might be of a friendly Boston terrier rushing to greet you with a few sniffs and nudging for affection, and then returning to its sunny napping spot on the carpet beneath the bright windows. This office is a dog friendly establishment and employees are encouraged to bring their furry loved ones to work, assuming they are well-behaved.
The entryway has high ceilings and comfortable seating. While waiting for your appointment, the trickling fountain gives the impression of relaxation that one might find before entering for a spa service, and along one wall is a shelf of relics from the past. There is an old typewriter, timeworn books, antique telegraph machines, and vintage cameras. These items are on display to represent things of our past and the advancements we have made, and also how the means of communication has evolved.
Allen Ray and his family are the owners and founders of SimplyHome, a company that provides technological services and products to simplify home needs and provide a means of health monitoring to give individuals the opportunity to be self-sufficient in their own home, while still providing protection and keeping their family informed. In other words, a security blanket for those in need.
The Family Behind SimplyHome
Allen and his wife first came to Western North Carolina on their honeymoon and instantly fell in love with the area. It would be 15 years before they found the opportunity they were looking for to return. As business consultants, they began by revitalizing an existing nonprofit business located in Southern Pines, similar to what would become SimplyHome.
Their first order of business was to establish their company in Asheville and to transition from a facility based service to a company offering the means for clients to live in a place they want to live: their own home. They felt that there just were not enough options for people who needed help but didn’t want to live in a home or state run facility.
The mantra that they adhere to is that they are not selling technology, but trying to create an outcome, realizing that everyone’s outcome is different, therefore basing their services on individual needs.
“We want to find out what are the failures built into your day, which is different for each of us, and design the supports for them, knowing that tomorrow these supports may change.”
Allen, his wife (Drue), and his son (Jason) all work at SimplyHome, and the fourth partner he describes as like a son to the family. They have achieved numerous awards, accolades, and patents you can see displayed throughout the office. Allen is an engineer and recipient of many technology awards, and his wife was recently named entrepreneur of the year by a local organization. Bumping into the whole family on a tour of the product demo space, they pose for a picture proudly holding their dog, Beau.
There is a sense of ease and camaraderie throughout the office. There are talks of practical jokes, and a set of golf balls and a golf club rest in the corner for those days they want to “putt for lunch.” A vintage pin ball machine resides in the lofty product design space for those needed breaks from the intricate design work.
The concept for SimplyHome derived from a visit to a facility in which an elderly patient described her experience. She loved the food, the care, and the place, but it simply wasn’t her home. It was from this that the light bulb illuminated, and the Ray family started their journey in helping people maintain their life at home.
The Road to Home
In addition to SimplyHome, the family also is the proprietor of Innovative Solutions, a Wisconsin based company with the same ideals that uses the technological developments to offer assistance to residents. The raw passion of what he does and what his company stands for is apparent, as Allen explains a sequence of events that propelled their business into action.
[quote float=”right”]In the early 2000s, the state of Wisconsin closed a number of institutions, displacing 154 patients in need and leaving them with few options for care, if any.[/quote]In the early 2000s, the state of Wisconsin closed a number of institutions, displacing 154 patients in need and leaving them with few options for care, if any. The Ray family was outraged at the prospect of so many people being forced to relocate to places they didn’t want to be and taking them away from what they were familiar with, and Allen’s wife urged her husband to use his skills in developing a solution.
They appealed to the state with proposals and spoke with representatives in hopes of finding a resolution. They were met with resistance to their advanced suggestions of developing technology to aid these individuals. Allen temporarily moved to Wisconsin and adamantly spoke with each and every family that was being affected either through public meetings or individual discussions.
These same families were instrumental in helping further their appeals, and their persistence paid off. In 2004 all of the family members in need were moved into community settings that integrated the SimplyHome technologies in assisting the special needs these individuals faced.
A decade later these individuals are still living successfully in these establishments, and every year they have a picnic and shrimp boil to celebrate their successes. Allen enjoys attending these yearly festivities and feels rewarded when family members hug him in appreciation and express that they never thought their loved ones would strive and excel to reach the outcomes they have.
Allen paints a picture of the vast dairy land throughout that area that can be used for communities such as this, in which residents can enjoy having chickens and other life enhancing amenities that are made possible with the technology that his company provides. He envisions such communities being developed in Western North Carolina and says he has been contacted by several representatives on how to make this happen. He believes that he has the successful model.
The Language of Technology
The key to success for SimplyHome is in the technology. In a time when new technology becomes old technology before we even know about it, Allen and his employees are more excited than ever. For each individual that they help they look at what products currently exist, and if they can’t find what they need, then they develop it.
Their products range from the basic emergency response systems, to medication dispensers, to environmental controls operated by tablet or voice activation. They offer devices that monitor health factors such as blood pressure, heart rate, and weight. They can install sensors that identify if the kitchen oven has been on too long with no motion detected. All of this software and technology is backed by customer support, as well as individualized family notifications.
Back in the demo room, Allen demonstrates what happens when someone gets out of bed and enters the display bathroom. As he moves through certain tasks, an alert is sent to his phone demonstrating the real time communication. The minute-to-minute breakdown may be overkill for some, but this is why they customize the system to each individual.
In the eyes of SimplyHome, what sets them apart from other companies—and there aren’t many that do what they offer—is that they view all of these monitoring devices as its own language. Their job is to interpret all the languages in one simplified, easy to read place. When training new employees, Allen equates this process to the United Nations where cultures with different languages convene in one place. In this case SimplyHome would be the interpreter.
The upstairs design room hosts a 3-D printer where all prototypes are created and tested before distribution, and the experimentation happens with the inevitable successes and failures. Beside the wires, gadgets, and microchips there is a picture that simply states: “Technology advances, people stay the same.” And following down the hall is framed artwork that patients and clients have created. Each one telling a story that just possibly SimplyHome may have helped them to tell.
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
There is no way to bypass unnoticed the many pictures lining the stairway displaying the company’s involvement in the well-known, tear jerking, inspirational show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, in which families in need are given a revolutionary home renovation, that caters to their needs and disabilities.
SimplyHome was contacted, to partake in the show to provide state of the art technology to the featured at-risk individual. When initially contacted Allen reserved a bit of skepticism and was steadfast in his instructions that he would only donate products and services that were really needed.
“We do it under one condition. We only do the things that he needs, just like we would for anyone, not just because it is good television.”
He prides his company on the fact that they never upsell for unnecessary services. They don’t sell anything without an individual assessment. They reserve the right to say “no” and encourage all clients to say “no” when it is not right for them, whether the family wants it or the television station wants it.
The first thing they did when they reached the filming site was request to see the client they were helping, and spent time finding out his actual needs. Once his health concerns were addressed, Allen asked him a personal question.
“If you could change some things in your life what would that be?” His immediate response, without hesitation, was that he would never get a girlfriend if his Dad always had to hold the phone and listen to his conversations and was concerned that girls just found that creepy.
In response Allen and his team worked in 108 degree weather in a small tent and developed an earpiece operated by a magnet that would give him the independence to pursue his social life, a deed that was ultimately beneficial and concurrently good television.
“We don’t know what tomorrow will hold, but we know if we can give you the things that are essential to you, it will give you the time you need for your therapy and other things to help you feel better,” Allen advised.
SimplyHome has a continued dialogue with those they have assisted on the show as well as the cast and crew of Extreme Makeover. They periodically offer advice to the show, and they have offered any of their services free of charge for life for those individuals.
A Family Firm
You get the feeling that working for SimplyHome is pretty much like working with family. Besides being allowed to bring your pets to work, you are also expected to concur with the family and business philosophy of giving back to the community. Allen requires that all employees fulfill at least two days a year of volunteer work to their chosen organization, and group volunteer activities are organized such as the upcoming sponsorship for the autism walk.
[quote float=”right”]“To be in charge of their life at a time when we thought that they couldn’t be. What a powerful story,” Allen responds when asked why he comes to work each day. [/quote]“We want the outcome to be something they go home and feel good about. We encourage employees to leave the day feeling like you made a difference.”
So at a time when baby boomers are aging, veterans are returning disabled from war, traumatic brain injuries are common, and disabled children are born daily, there is an overabundance of incapacitated individuals and a lack of facilities that are able to help. It is the goal of SimplyHome to help find other options.
“To be in charge of their life at a time when we thought that they couldn’t be. What a powerful story,” Allen responds when asked why he comes to work each day. A powerful story indeed.
Who needs assistance?
Here are some statistics on the disabled, as well as our aging population.
Western North Carolina’s population is aging faster than the rest of the state. 36% of the population is over age 50.
North Carolina’s highest percentages of elderly individuals are concentrated in 5 of Western North Carolina’s counties.
Data for the 23 counties of Western North Carolina predicts that by 2030 the largest segment of the population will be over 60.
18.3% of Asheville’s population is aged 65 to 85 years. It is projected that this group will double in the next 14 years.
(According to the Asheville Chamber of Commerce)
North Carolina’s older population is expected to double by 2030, rising from 1.1 million to 2.2 million with one of every five Americans 65 years or older.
(According to The North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research)
20.2% of North Carolina adults ages 18 and over have reported that they have activity limitations due to physical, mental, or emotional health problems or limitations.
(According to BRFSS,Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System)
7.8% of North Carolina adults report they have a health problem requiring special equipment.
Defined as the adult population born between 1946 and 1964, baby boomers make up approximately 25% of the total population of the United States.
91% of baby boomers feel the need to take measures to ensure their future health.
(According to the International Health, Racquet, & Sportsclub Association)
The United Health Foundation has ranked North Carolina 36th in overall state health rankings.
(Data derived from local county governments in Western North Carolina, as well as Western Carolina University’s 2014 Regional Outlook Report.)