By: Emily Topczewski
Summer 2014 Communications Intern
Senior majoring in journalism
Mark had been working in these fields for twenty five years before realizing his interest in bettering the lives of aging adults. “I wanted to continue doing what I’m doing but apply it to the opportunities available through aging,” he said.
“I saw the need and the opportunity for innovation,” he said, “and I had my own personal experience with aging parents. I needed to build a foundation that helped launch me into that area.” This need brought him to UWM, where he completed the program with intent to focus his interest in working with aging communities.
“I didn’t know where I wanted to focus, so I went in with the idea that when I immerse myself, it will inspire and help me figure it out.”
And focus he did.
While in the certificate program, he was introduced to Josh Silldorff, the founder and CEO of Brightlife Innovations, through a mutual friend. He was brought on as part of a three person team (plus one intern!) in Spring 2013, and was made a partner in the business at the end of the year.
Brighlife Innovations seeks to improve social connections and mental health in aging communities. The company’s premier solution, EasyConnect HD, connects aging adults in senior living communities to friends, family, and remote caregivers across the country. It also can connect patients and nursing staff with remote attending physicians and other medical professionals.
Innovation is a theme in Mark’s professional life, even before he developed an interest in gerontology. Before his career shift, he worked in brand management for major local companies like SC Johnson and Harley Davidson. “It’s about identifying consumer need and then developing products that meet that need,” he said. “My focus was always innovation – i.e., finding a better way.”
When his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Mark was thrown into a new role: remote caregiver. “It was a challenge of supporting my mom and my dad as he went through the long path of Alzheimer’s,” he said. His parents were determined to stay in their home while aging, which sparked a question in his mind – “How do we bring in services and support to make that happen?”
Six months after his father passed from Alzheimer’s, his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer – bringing him back into his role as remote caregiver. “I thought, oh my god, there’s got to be a better way for remote caregivers like myself to help our parents age well.” Coming away from these tragedies, he was looking for a career change that ideally would serve some sort of higher purpose. “Then I turned 50, and asked myself – what do I want to do in the next part of my career?” he said.
This call for change led him the grad certificate program at UWM, where he could learn more about the field and focus his interests into a career that combined his newfound passions and professional background. “I liked the blend of core courses that gave me the basic grounding I was looking for,” he said, “You have to take those two courses but then there’s flexibility with electives so I could chart my own program.”
This flexibility gave Mark a chance to take courses that interested him both personally and professionally, and made opportunities that focused his interest in aging into a viable career path. “Design and Disability was an awesome course,” he said, “It was all about product and how to make products accessible to disabled people. I applied this information to aging.”
He’s continued to apply what he’s learned in this course into his work today. “The Design and Disability course is everything we’re doing at BrightLife,” he said. “[It’s all about] how do we make [the product] easier to use?”
Mark is confident that his specialization through the graduate certificate program gave him credibility in the field and necessary direction in his career. “It’s easier to understand opportunities when you have the basics down on aging,” he said.
He’s already seeing a positive change in interest in gerontology and working with aging adults. “It seems so much easier now to help remote parents,” he said, when reflecting on his own experiences as a remote caregiver. But, he also sees the room for growth and innovation in the field.
“Advances in information and communications technology are rapidly being adopted in corporate America, but haven’t really penetrated senior living communities to the same degree. There are so many opportunities to help enrich the lives of residents and their families while at the same driving efficiencies for the community. This is the window of opportunity we are aggressively pursuing.”
This led him to BrightLife, and he encourages current and future students to forge their own path in the diverse field of gerontology.
“I would challenge them to find another area, broadly speaking, where there’s going to be more business potential. Or where you can make a bigger difference in the lives of others who are aging,” he said. “For me, it was both.”