Husband and wife team overcome adversity by helping others
“You can either succumb to your adversities, or you can overcome them,” says Allison Jacobsen, co-owner of Wilton-based Accessible Home Living. “What better way to overcome adversity than to use your own strengths and knowledge to make life better for other people?”
Neither Ms. Jacobsen, nor her husband Greg Jacobsen, both of Wilton, are strangers to understanding and overcoming adversity. Their shared experience — Ms. Jacobsen as a caregiver and Mr. Jacobsen as a chronic disease sufferer — makes them a true force in helping families going through significant life changes.
“Everything has happened in our lives for a reason,” Ms. Jacobsen said. “I’d never wish MS upon Greg, but our experiences have allowed us to find our path in this world.”
Mr. Jacobsen is a former professional golfer and Williams College athlete who suffers from muscular sclerosis, a degenerative disease attacking the body’s central nervous system. Ms. Jacobsen lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome, and cares for a son who suffers from intellectual disabilities. Rather than succumbing to these difficulties, however, they plunged into their new enterprise, Accessible Home Living, a remodeling company specializing in accessible renovations.
Mr. Jacobsen, a man who was once a professional athlete with four hole-in-one shots to his name, found himself struggling to simply get up from bed in the morning as his multiple sclerosis progressed. Though his doctors believe he has suffered some form of the disease for 39 years, he was only diagnosed two years ago.
“I was the captain of the golf team at Williams,” Mr. Jacobsen said, “We had one of the finest golf courses in the country. What I would do is spend my summers there, working on my game.”
After he left professional golf a few years after graduating from college, he became an entrepreneur, helping develop various businesses. Over the years, however, he began to experience intense fatigue — a common side effect of MS. Over time, he was continuously diagnosed with Lyme disease, though doctors never found a tick, or bite on his body, Mr. Jacobsen says.
Eventually, he would be diagnosed with MS, which had begun to leave lesions on his spinal cord. Now he describes having MS as somewhat equitable to the exhaustion most associate with a bad flu.
“There’s no pain. Everybody’s had the flu. The worst day you have the flu, when you just say ‘I’m not getting out of bed, don’t want to move a muscle,’ that is progressive MS every day. I’m used to it, I punch through it, I make myself get going.”
Ms. Jacobsen’s experience is on the other side of the spectrum. She does not suffer from any debilitating situation, but has cared for three generations of people who require assistance and acceptability. Over the course of her life, she has cared for her parents, her husband, and her son.
Following the loss of her first son to sudden infant death syndrome, Ms. Jacobsen decided there were only two paths she could take; one of self-pity, or one of activism.
“Ever since my son died of SIDS, I realized you can either wallow in your misery, or you can do something to make a difference,” she said.
She chose the latter, and throughout the rest of her life’s challenges, she has continued to hold onto that belief. In the late 1990s, Ms. Jacobsen left a New York City public relations firm, and has worked as an activist for child safety. She is a national safety expert who has worked with companies like AT&T and Toyota.
One of the larger campaigns she has worked on is AT&T’s recent It Can Wait campaign, which stresses the need to ignore your cell phone while driving. In addition, she runs a website called SafetyMom.com, which provides free advice on childcare, and safety for interested parents, and a company called Safety Mom Solutions, which provides baby-proofing services for homes.
When her husband was diagnosed with MS just weeks after their marriage, Ms. Jacobsen said she wouldn’t let him become a victim.
“It was hard for him, from a psychological standpoint,” she said. “There was a little ‘woe is me,’ and we had just been married. But, I’m not that kind of person. I was like, ‘OK, you’ve gotta’ suck it up.’”
Instead, the Jacobsens became dedicated to using their experience to help improve the lives of others who are being affected by unexpected challenges.
“There are 190,000 disabled people in Connecticut from the ages of 16 to 64. All of them need some sort of access, especially vets coming home from war,” Ms. Jacobsen said. With this in mind, she said, they asked themselves “how can we take what we know from our own experiences, myself as a caregiver, and Greg with MS, and turn it into a business?”
They imagined they could start a company specializing in renovating homes to become more handicap accessible. But, they would not only offer remodeling services, they would provide a whole package of support for clients in need of accessible living spaces.
“We get it,” Ms. Jacobsen said. “We get it from every angle, from Alzheimer’s to MS to intellectual disabilities, to seniors. It just made a lot of sense” to work at something like Accessible Home Living, which aims to provide full service renovations to homes where family members require special, accessible accommodations. In addition to the basic remodeling services, Accessible Home Living provides a wealth of knowledge other contractors don’t have the capacity to offer.
“What we’ve created is a resource center. What we absolutely do is remodeling, but we also have a physical therapist that we bring in. We have a social worker who can take care of the emotional aspect of this. It has become this entire universe of safety, wellness, and accessibility for all generations.”
The full range of expertise and understanding the Jacobsens provide is what sets them above and beyond other contractors who offer accessible solutions.
“What’s unique about us, is that we can sit down with you and say, I get what you’re going through as a caregiver,” Ms. Jacobsen said. “I understand what it’s like not being able to walk up and down the stairs, or to have a handicap-accessible bathroom in your home.”
That understanding also means that the Jacobsens understand how difficult a remodeling process can be for those dealing with newly developed accessibility issues. By taking care of everything, Mr. Jacobsen said, from pulling the initial permits, to installing an HVAC system, Accessible Home Living takes a lot of stress off the shoulders of its clients.
By the time the permitting process is completed, he added, any addition will be completed in less than eight weeks.
“That eight weeks is important,” Ms. Jacobsen explained. “You only have 100 days in rehab after you get out of the hospital before Medicaid drops your coverage. When you’re out in 100 days, and you go back to your house and there are no stairs, forget about it. Where can you find a contractor to change your house in 100 days? We’re very cognizant about that window.”
In the end, the Jacobsens hope one important lesson is apparent in the way they live their lives.
“There are so many people out there who have had something bad happen in their life, and they say, ‘I’m done,’” Ms. Jacobsen said. “But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can take what life has given you, and not only make something for yourself, but pay it forward.”
—Additional reporting by Bulletin intern Nathan Seper.