Local man travels to Salt Lake City locations and does hair for older adults

Story and photos by STACEY WORSTER

A career that started at J.C. Penney Salon in 1969 has transitioned into a personal hair business focusing on older adults.

Gary Cunningham, owner of Hair Care by House Call, offers perms, tints and manicures. He spends most of his visits performing a haircut and style, for which he charges $18.

“I cater to my customers’ budget plan,” Cunningham said while he was putting a client’s hair in rollers. “I can afford doing this because my clients that have the money to pay full price for my services always pay me extra,” he said, as he pointed to his client.” It all works out.”

After spending 24 years at J.C. Penney, it was a scary transition to start his unique hair business. Without clients a hair business is not possible, Cunningham said.

“I took half of my Salt Lake City clients that I had at Penney’s and started working by call,” he said. “They were good enough to let me come into their homes.”

He is listed in a booklet compiled by Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services that helps older adults locate services and providers.

“There are so many options in that book,” Cunningham said. “Everything a person could need at home so they don’t have to leave.”

“I attract most clients by referrals from other clients,” he said. “The 55-plus book that the Salt Lake City Aging Services has provided also has helped shape my business into what it has become.”

Hair Care by House Call is listed at the top of the hairdressing section on Page 21 in the 55+ Senior Resource Directory.

“If there were complaints, we wouldn’t be in that book for long,” Cunningham said. “I am at the top of the list because I have been doing hair appointments by house call the longest.”

Because Cunningham focuses on providing hair-care services to older adults, he loses clients to sicknesses and death.

“A lot of people just die,” he said. “I am working with them while they are in their last decade or two so I do lose a lot of clients. There is always somebody that moves into an assisted living home or nursing home and wants to try out a new hairdresser. I am a good option for them,” Cunningham added.

Because he volunteers his time for little to no cost, the amount of money he spends on gas is usually covered by the client he services.

Mission at Hillside Rehabilitation Center offers "medical and nursing care and skilled care services in a relationship-rich environment."

Mission at Hillside Rehabilitation Center offers “medical and nursing care and skilled care services in a relationship-rich environment.”

Every Friday at 9 a.m., Cunningham travels to Mission at Hillside Rehabilitation Center located at 1216 E. and 1300 South in Salt Lake City to see Rebecca Helmes.

Helmes, 84, said, “He makes a big difference in my life, and his efforts go a long ways. He always is trying to please clients.”

She had to leave her lifelong hairdresser about six years ago, found Cunningham and has been happy ever since.

“Gary has followed me everywhere this past year,” she said, “every hospital and home I have been in.”

Rebecca Helmes with Gary Cunningham after their 9 a.m. Friday appointment.

Helmes has been in six different facilities, not counting the few visits to the University Hospital, since she left her home in May 2013.

She is receiving therapy at Mission at Hillside for her tailbone injury. As soon as she is able to walk she will return home.

“Gary went to help me out of my bed this morning, and I let him know I could do it by myself,” she said. “I can’t wait to move back home.”

Helmes pays Cunningham $22 every time he comes to do her hair.

“He drives here, puts a rinse on my hair, and talks to me,” she said. “You go to a beauty shop and it is more expensive than that.”

Helmes, who grew up in New Mexico, said having good hair has always been important to her. “We sure could’ve used a good beautician out there, I tell ya.”

That is why she got so embarrassed after an assistant at Mission at Hillside accidentally got her hair wet. She said her hair became frizzy and she didn’t want to leave her room.

“I had people tell me how beautiful I looked,” she said. “I thought ‘yeah right.'”

Photo of the beauty parlor where Cunningham does Helmes' hair. It is located inside Mission at Hillside Rehabilitation Center in Salt Lake City.

Photo of the beauty parlor where Cunningham does Helmes’ hair. It is located inside Mission at Hillside Rehabilitation Center in Salt Lake City.

As Cunningham grabbed the container of Lemonheads, he said laughing, “Well they are all probably just as blind as you are.”

Beauty is important, too, even when one is gravely ill.

Terra Dennis, director of volunteers at Silverado Hospice in Salt Lake City, said in a phone interview that three or four licensed cosmetologists volunteer their services.

“The volunteers each have two patients who they visit once a month,” Dennis said. “It is usually a quick haircut and then a visit. All patients are pretty ill, so a good visit does wonders.”

Cunningham said his clients have become some of his closest friends.

Helmes echoed this sentiment. “Gary has grown to be one of my closest friends over the past five years. He does a great job and cares about me as a person.”