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What America’s Aging Population Means for Family Caregivers Like Me

6 minute read
Sweeney is the founder and CEO of Tender, a company radically transforming the experience of family caregiving

“Sir, may I know your daughter’s name?”

The customer service representative from the energy company was asking my father this question for the third time. We were trying to transfer the ownership of his account to me, but for the third time, he couldn’t answer.

This was a defining moment in our journey with Alzheimer’s. After five years of living with my father’s diagnosis, I had gradually taken over almost every aspect of his life management. But this was the first time I questioned if he could remember me.

The account still hasn’t been changed to my name, a stark reminder of the daily reality for those caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s, and more broadly the 54 million Americans who care for aging relatives.

The United States is on the brink of a silver tsunami. By 2030, 24 million people will require long-term care—about double the number who need it today—and our healthcare system is ill-equipped to support them all. Family members and their communities—children, spouses, grandchildren, cousins, and friends—will need to fill the gap. But our system isn’t designed to support this shift in household decision-making. To give seniors a better quality of life, we’ll need to make a societal shift across government, businesses and within our own families. And practical, accessible technology is the glue that will hold it all together.

Read More: Why Americans Are Uniquely Afraid to Grow Old

Eight years ago, when my father was first diagnosed, I was just starting my career in tech in New York, while he was living in the Bay Area where I grew up. I was determined to maintain his independence for as long as possible, and I focused on using technology to do this from afar, a goal that allowed me to manage my own career and life in a different city.

According to an AARP survey, about 80% of American seniors wish to stay at home for as long as possible. Aging in place offers improved quality of life and better health outcomes than assisted living facilities. The challenge is that, apart from the occasional 15-minute doctor’s appointment, assisting someone who may not be able to accomplish all daily living activities on their own usually falls to families to figure out. This whole new job can often be stressful, costly, and emotionally overwhelming.

Early on, I discovered that with my father’s permission, and a smartphone, Wi-Fi access, a small investment in hardware, and a large investment of time and energy, it was possible to create a setup that worked. I found it effective to set up shared accounts with my father and safely store most of his usernames and passwords so I could easily coordinate his communications and access certain services. I helped him automate his health insurance and mortgage payments, switched most of his bills to online, and recorded as much key information as possible. Over time, I created remote access to his home with smart devices that allow me to drop in whenever I want and cameras that help let me know where my father is, and that he is safe. I found quality in-home help with two wonderful home health aides through an online platform in whose hands I felt confident leaving my father during the day.

But that wasn’t without trial and error. Even with access to all his online accounts, I often find myself fumbling between his and my own many online accounts and occasionally missing critical things. In one example from the beginning, I missed several of my dad’s credit card payments, which tanked his credit score. Because of that, I was unable to refinance his mortgage to take advantage of better interest rates until I added him onto my own credit card and rebuilt his credit over several years. I still have a hard time forgiving myself for this.

A few years into my journey as a family caregiver, I quickly realized that with all of these new responsibilities on top of my own life, I was burning out. There was an entire other dimension of caregiving I had overlooked–I had to find a way to take care of myself if I was going to adequately take care of my dad. I founded an online community of caregivers. We shared advice and tips for helping our parents on the day-to-day. It offered me a lifeline to the emotional support and empathy I needed when things got tough. And the experience I had with my online community and the universal problems those caregivers faced and shared gave me the idea for a solution to help not just me and my dad, but everyone.

For many people, setting up a complex arrangement of technology and paid health aides can be extremely daunting or even inaccessible. Getting to this point took a lot of time and energy and investment. Participating in online communities can take the time caregivers desperately don’t have. Paid help is often a privilege. This is why accessible technology, expert recommendations, and community resources are the crucial missing pieces in family caregiving. The struggle is real. It could be so much easier.

I’m hopeful that the current revolution underway in artificial intelligence will make a huge difference. We can already see this in action with Replika, the AI app that chats with you as a real friend would. By learning about you through your conversations over time, Replika creates a digital companion that can alleviate feelings of loneliness in the elderly and provide emotional support for caregivers in difficult circumstances. While chatbots can’t fully replace real human interaction today, they can still serve a helpful purpose for those who converse with them.

In fact, my journey with my dad has led me to design an app for family caregivers, partly because the caregivers in my community have asked for it, and partly because my dad would want our family’s experience to help others. We’re creating ways to leverage the collective wisdom of family caregivers—all the lifehacks, tips, and tricks—and building modern tools that can take over the heavy lifting for those who need it now, and all those yet to come.

There’s no doubt that caregiving in America presents a formidable challenge. With my own father, I know we’re in a slowly losing battle against Alzheimer’s. But eight years into this journey, I also hope we’re living proof we don’t have to simply resort to the old ways of taking care of each other. There are new, better ways for families to take advantage of and a path to more dignity and precious time with each other. With ingenuity and dedication, advanced technologies can and must rise to the occasion, giving family caregivers what they need to ride out the silver tsunami.

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