Critter Corner: “Grandkids on Demand” Help with Loneliness

Dear Magic,

Maury, a man I used to work with, is in his 90’s and lives alone. I touched base with him recently over the phone, and I can tell he has been lonely during the pandemic. He always told me how he wished he had gotten married, so he could have children and grandchildren of his own. He now lives across the country, so I can no longer visit him, and he doesn’t feel comfortable with technology. What are some ways he could still get companionship?


Cam Panyun

Dear Cam,

According to a 2018 AARP Foundation survey, 33% of older adults in the United States are socially isolated, a state that is linked to increased health risks, including heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. Vivek Murthy, the former United States surgeon general, has written that loneliness and social isolation are “associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

And the problem has an impact on the health care system. Last year, there were thousands of emergency room visits that had nothing to do with physical ailments at all. The patients were just completely socially isolated, without anyone to turn to for help.

“Grandkids on Demand” for Lonely Seniors

Similar to your friend, Maury, Bill Rodger, 91, is a retiree who often finds himself alone. That was until Ricardo Figueroa, 31, who isn’t a family member or caretaker or even a neighbor, started keeping him company. Ricardo is a paid companion who is connected to Mr. Rodger through Papa, a health tech company that provides “grandkids on demand.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the two spent multiple hours together each week — running errands, going to dialysis appointments, or just watching movies. Today, their relationship is restricted to phone calls but they speak often and remain close.

Founded in 2018, Papa pairs older adults with college students and young workers who have common interests and hobbies. Mr. Rodger and Mr. Figueroa are both military veterans who enjoy documentaries, sports and an occasional beer, and they live within a few blocks of each other.

Before the pandemic, the 5,000 Papa Pals once played card games or worked on memoirs with the seniors they have befriended. Today they are FaceTiming or calling each other to discuss a world in disarray. Some have shifted to running errands, picking up groceries or prescriptions. Papa is currently available in 20 states but plans to be available and our 50 states by 2021; the company typically charges clients $20 to $25 an hour.

Companionship Programs Help with Caregiving

Mr. Rodger has a granddaughter who had been his primary caretaker for more than four years. His family is paying for Papa because once he needed dialysis, it became too much for her to handle with her full-time job. His family decided to use a Papa Pal instead of a traditional home healthcare agency because of Papa’s focus on companionship versus personal assistance, though the services provided by Papa can also be provided by numerous local home health care and companion agencies.

Mon Ami, another company that facilitates senior companion services through nursing homes and for individuals, recently set up a volunteer phone bank to support older people isolated by shelter-in-place orders. It drew 300 hundred volunteers within days. Paid companions have also shifted to phone calls or virtual visits, staying in touch with seniors by putting on mini concerts, reading books aloud and instructing gentle movement exercises.

For paid companion positions, both Papa and Mon Ami screen potential candidates through in-depth interviews, as well as through background and motor vehicle checks. (The volunteer bank is far less intensively screened, though still requires an application.)

Want to help a loved one who is feeling lonely during the pandemic? In addition to these services, our recent article on loneliness during the pandemic offers some helpful suggestions.

Hop this helps!

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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.

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