Elsie Shields is always smiling, especially over spicy Thai salad
By Dana Sachs
When Elsie Shields and I meet for lunch one day at Big Thai Restaurant in Landfall Center, she describes the early part of her morning by listing activities that a lot of people hate: “Washing sheets, watering plants, making breakfast and snacks.”
But Elsie looks quite pleased about her day so far. She has a big smile on her face when she adds, “and then I did it all again.”
That smile doesn’t seem to be unusual for Elsie, which is a good thing for a person who runs a business called Always Good Company. Elsie and her staff of eight provide good company in the form of companionship care for adults who need assistance. In this line of work, it helps to have a sunny disposition, particularly on a busy day. This morning has been busy. First, Elsie met with Betty, an 88-year-old woman, and then she went to visit Marion, who is 88 too. At Marion’s place, “I knocked on the door, then let myself in with the key. First, I made her coffee and while she drank it, I fed the cat, made her bed, opened the blinds, then made her eggs, got her the newspaper, emptied the dishwasher, scooped the litter box, cleaned her bathroom and helped her get dressed.”
Most of Elsie’s clients are elderly people who want to maintain their engagement with the world but don’t necessarily have the energy or stamina to do so independently. Elsie and her staff help by taking them, for example, to manicure appointments, physical therapy or the library. Sometimes they go out for lunch or stop somewhere for a beer. The goal lies in helping people remain active and stimulated, not necessarily in accomplishing any specific goal together. At the library, for example, Elsie says, “they check out lots of books. If they don’t read them, we take them back. What’s the difference?”
Elsie opened the business in 2013, and she’s found that she loves interacting with her clients. “I could get wisdomy, but honestly, you get to a certain age and you realize that none of the stuff you worry about matters.”
Wisdomy or not, Elsie doesn’t need anyone to teach her that lesson. She learned it herself, the hard way. In 2006, when Elsie was 37, she and her husband, Patrick, were running The Everyday Gourmet, their shop in Porter’s Neck, and raising two boys, 2-year-old Aidan and 5-year-old Patrick. They had opened the store 10 years earlier, but it had only recently become a success. Patrick, a professional chef, was catering for private airlines and, in May of that year, Harris Teeter made a deal with him to start selling The Everyday Gourmet brand of chicken salad in area stores.
“That never happened,” Elsie says. Patrick died a few days later.
He had gone to Atlanta to celebrate his goddaughter’s First Communion. Late at night, after spending the evening with his family, he fell while walking down the stairs at his brother’s house. His head hit a step, killing him instantly. Back home in Wilmington, Elsie was wondering why she hadn’t heard from her husband. And then, a few hours later, a family member showed up at the house.
“I swear to you, no cliché, I couldn’t have gotten through without friends and family,” she tells me, describing those early days when she became a widow and her sons lost their dad. Eventually, Elsie sold the business, and she has since remarried, too. “You never get over it,” she says, “But now, 10 years later, I can remember something about Pat without getting too upset.” Still, her tone turns wistful when she says, “The bottom line was, we were very happy.”
Elsie’s years at The Everyday Gourmet taught her how to manage a business, and competence with budgeting, staffing and marketing remains a useful skill in running Always Good Company. Years in the food industry probably helped too, because in companion care, cooking for clients is “a major thing.”
I can see why Elsie’s clients like to go out with her for lunch. At Big Thai, she’s both enthusiastic and discerning. We try a range of dishes, including a tangy fresh papaya salad, a chicken with basil that has a spicy kick, and crab fried rice topped with big pieces of crabmeat arrayed in the shape of a star. Once the fried rice appears, we’re too busy eating to talk. Then, Elsie starts to laugh. “Oh, my God, I love it,” she says. “It sounds silly, but it’s just warm and that first bite is really comforting.” If the vegetables in the beef pineapple curry seem a bit too similar to the ones in the chicken (lots of carrots, lots of peppers), we forget about that when a big slice of coconut cake arrives for dessert. “I love how fresh it is, so soft and moist,” says Elsie, after her first bite. Then, she makes a quick calculation, and, sounding like a judge at the Pillsbury Bake-Off, announces, “Cake to icing ratio: Not too much, not too little.”
Elsie tells me that she’s learned a lot from her clients, including the importance of remaining active throughout life. “What a difference,” she says, “between the people who sit around in a chair and watch TV and the person who gets exercise.”
“Exercise,” she goes on to explain, doesn’t mean that an 88-year-old needs to be running sprints. Rather, people need to be out and about, engaged with the world for as long as possible. “I’m talking about getting up and going to the grocery store.” Elsie has a client, in fact, who loves to go to Harris Teeter just to greet people. “She says to everyone, ‘Well, hello there!’ It’s all about the attitude.”
Attitude, in Elsie’s opinion, can turn even a mundane wander through the deli aisle into a little adventure. “Even if we don’t buy anything,” she explains, “we love the free samples.” Then Elsie Shields leans back in her chair and, with a glint in her eye, says, “We’re all about the free samples.” At this moment, she doesn’t sound like a business owner so much as a member of a savvy club that’s figured out the secret to a healthy life. And she seems grateful to be part of it.
Big Thai Restaurant is located at 1319 Military Cutoff Road, in the Landfall Shopping Center. You can find out more at (910) 256-6588 or at www.bigthainc.com. For information about Always Good Company, call (910) 538-5207 or visit www.goodcompanyhomecare.com.
Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.