SAN DIEGO — Ethel Sogliuzzo, 71, had just climbed over an 8-foot fence surrounding a posh Mount Helix estate. Her next challenge was to make it up to an unlocked second-floor bathroom window.
"I found an old, rickety ladder," she said, "and somehow I got up there, opened up the window and squeezed myself through. Nothing like making a grand entrance, head first, right onto the dresser."
It was all in a day's work for Sogliuzzo, who along with her husband, Frank, 70, is a professional house sitter.
"I locked myself out when I went to the mailbox," she said. "And there was no other way to get back in. I used muscles that I didn't even know I had."
Sogliuzzo had only a few scratches to show for her creative re-entry. But as a result, she crocheted a key holder for her wrist and now always carries an extra door key with her.
For Ralph Cabanas, 75, entry into one client's home was even more difficult.
"I took the family dog outside in the yard to make friends with it, and initially everything seemed fine," he said. "But the dog would not let me back in the house. I learned later that it was trained not to let any stranger in."
Cabanas managed to give the dog the slip and sneak in through the front door. But once inside the animal followed him everywhere, nipping at his heels.
"We finally had to make an arrangement with the owner's daughter for her to come and put the dog in its room every day," he said.
The Sogliuzzos and Cabanas are among about 20 seniors ranging in age from 65 to 82 who are employed by Home Sitting Service of San Diego. The service is run locally by Pat Richardson, whose uncle founded the business 14 years ago in Denver. It expanded into San Diego in 1984 and employs seniors almost exclusively.
"That's because I require our sitters to be on the premises 22 out of the 24 hours of each day," said Richardson. "Unless someone's retired, they can't do that. Besides, seniors are absolutely delightful as employees. And my clients trust them. They figure they must be in it for good reasons and not to find out what they have in their homes so they can come back and rip them off."
Her sentiments are echoed by Rich Ritcheson, who, along with his wife, Charlie, created House Sitters International a year ago. It is one of the other local sitting agencies providing this service, although many individuals perform house sitting duties on their own.
"We've found seniors to be the most reliable and dependable employees you can get, and we use them exclusively," said Ritcheson. Their years of experience give a lot of comfort to clients."
Richardson's elderly employees say house sitting suits them well and is a good tonic for boredom.
The service has about an equal number of married couples who work together and widowed individuals who work alone.
"Frank and I didn't want to just stay home and do nothing," said Sogliuzzo. "Before we started this, I had just retired from nine years as a Salvation Army dining room hostess, and I missed being involved."
"It's a way for us to keep active," her husband agreed. "We're not the type to go to senior clubs and we don't belong to a bowling team or anything like that. So this is perfect."
Clients are usually people who travel a lot and need someone to water plants and lawns and care for pets.
One regular client, Monica Shomburg of Escondido, said she and her husband enjoy visiting their native Germany frequently, "but every time we tried to get a decent house sitter it turned into a disaster."
The final straw was employing a trusted German exchange student and then returning to find their pool and yard in disarray and hearing stories from neighbors about wild parties.
"That did it," Shomburg said. "Since then we've used the house sitting services and we have the same couple sit each time. It has worked beautifully."
Richardson emphasizes that a love of animals is a strong prerequisite for her house sitters.
The Sogliuzzos like their clients' pets so much that each time they sit, Ethel takes snapshots of the animals. One set goes to the home owners and another set goes into her permanent photo album of client pets.
Pets Often Challenging
The couple had their hands full at a recent job in Santee.
"The owners had six rabbits, eight finches, two turtles and two dogs," Ethel said.
"They were all pretty easy to care for except the rabbits. We had to clean their cages every day and since one died of the heat last year, the owner instructed us to make sure the cages were cool at all times. In order to do that, Frank constantly put wet towels across their cages and put blocks of ice in with them. We even took one of the rabbits to the vet when it needed it."
Cabanas, a widower, especially enjoys taking walks with owner's pets. He recently house-sat in Beverly Hills when another sitter canceled at the service's Los Angeles branch.
"I had the time of my life walking the family's bull terrier around those classy neighborhoods up there," he said.