Tech startups tackling loneliness among aging seniors

Andrew Parker recognized that his aging grandfather, who had early dementia, needed more support around the home.

But "Papa," as Parker's family called their grandfather, didn't need traditional home care services; he needed a social connection. Parker's family connected Papa with a local college student in the Miami area to help him manage his daily life and provide companionship.

"He absolutely loved it," Parker told FierceHealthcare. 

That connection between two distinct generations inspired an idea—"grandkids on demand." In 2016, Parker launched his Miami-based healthcare company called Papa to tackle loneliness and social isolation among seniors. The company uses digital tools, such as a website, mobile app and call center to match aging seniors with college students.

His company is among a subset of health tech startups addressing the social needs of seniors and is part of a growing trend that's begun attracting investors.

Papa recently landed a $10 million Series A funding round led by Canaan, with additional investment from Pivotal Ventures, an investment and incubation company created by Melinda Gates. Initialized Capital, Y Combinator, and Sound Ventures re-invested in the round.

Palo Alto, California-based startup Mon Ami also recently announced a $3.4 million seed financing round. The funding round was led by Freestyle Ventures and Cowboy Ventures with significant participation from Maverick Ventures, Felicis Ventures, and angel investor Bruce Dunlevi. The company also pairs college students with seniors for social visits.

Co-founders Joy Zhang and Madeline Dangerfield-Cha met at Stanford Business School and launched the company in 2018.

RELATED: Why HHS wants Medicare Advantage plans to pay for home modifications, transportation for seniors

"I saw a huge opportunity to improve the way that we age, to bring more vibrancy, delight and joy and the small things that make life worth living back into the aging and caregiving industry," Zhang said.

Israeli company ElliQ raised $22 million in 2018, from venture capitalists for a robot it dubbed "the sidekick to happier aging" and a "digital companion."

While some companies are exploring the use of technology to combat loneliness, such as voice-enabled devices like Amazon and Alexa, Papa and Mon Ami are focused on fostering face-to-face connections.

"It’s hard to replicate sympathy and empathy from a technical perspective. The human connection is the most powerful and it’s never going away," Parker said.

A senior and her "grandkid on-demand"
provided through the startup Papa.

Papa will use the proceeds from its financing to expand its services to a broader population of older adults, via partnerships with additional insurance plans and employee benefits providers. The company also will expand its service footprint next year to 25 states.

Papa also scored major partnerships with multiple large health insurance plans, including Humana, Aetna, Priority Health and Alignment Healthcare. Those insurers are partnering with Papa across select markets for Medicare Advantage members. 

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) first relaxed the rules for supplemental benefits for the 2019 plan year for services such as transportation and home healthcare. For 2020, CMS expanded those flexibilities to allow for additional benefits such as meal services and air quality devices for asthma patients. 

Parker said the changes to CMS rules allowed for Papa's services to be covered by MA plans. "We are now mainly going through large health plans, health systems, and employers as a benefit," he said.

Using technology to foster a human connection

Growing research on the "loneliness epidemic" points to a correlation between social isolation and mortality. Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships, according to a 2010 study.

"Members love this. I think this is the first time in healthcare that it’s something they are excited about. It’s not like a diabetes medication program; it’s a young, fun, energetic person visiting with them. It’s a new view of how their health plan wants to support them," Parker said.

survey conducted by the health insurer Cigna in 2018 found nearly half of Americans report they feel alone or isolated at least some of the time. The nation’s 75 million millennials and Generation Z adults (ages 18-37 combined) are lonelier than any other U.S. demographic, according to the survey.

"We’re making a positive impact on reducing the social determinants of health for that younger age group as well," Parker said.

These companion services also benefit the caregivers and families, Dangerfield-Cha said. "There is so much worry, fear, and feelings of immense responsibility that fall on the shoulders of families and individuals caring for aging parents or loved ones," she said. "But more than anything, there is a feeling of wanting to do what is best."

RELATED: Cigna tees up its largest MA expansion ever for 2020 plan year 

A growing number of stakeholders and policymakers recognize that social determinants of health like loneliness are important to health outcomes, Caraline Coats, vice president, Bold Goal and Population Health Strategy at Humana said in a statement.

"We’re very excited to partner with Papa to further review how this type of intervention may be beneficial to members in our Medicare Advantage markets. We know that living conditions significantly influence health outcomes, and Papa is both helping seniors improve their day-to-day lives while also providing relief to the family members who help care for them," Coats said.

Parker's company currently has 3,500 college, nursing and pre-med students, known as “Papa Pals,” to pair up with older adults who need assistance with transportation, house chores, technology lessons, and other services. 

RELATED: Offering Medicare Advantage supplemental benefits is a 'long play,' experts say 

Both Papa and Mon Ami conduct stringent background checks on student companions. Parker said Papa Pals have to submit to a personality test, a virtual interview, a motor vehicle inspection and even a test of the tonality of their voice to ensure they have the "kind of personality we're looking for with a Papa Pal." Only 15% of applicants become Papa Pals, he said.

Parker's company also is working with health plans to help address other social determinants issues with home visits.

"Since we have these college students, with a secure platform and a mobile app, we’re able to perform services such as passive observers around fall risk. If a senior doesn't have food in the refrigerator or there are signs of elder abuse, we can help identify that. We are supporting both the member and the family and the health plan in a variety of ways," he said.