Andrew Parker was working at a telehealth company for seven years before he launched Papa, a digital assistance matchmaking platform. His father and grandfather were both entrepreneurs, and he dreamed of someday owning his own business. He just needed to find a niche that hadn’t been tapped into yet. That niche turned out to be closer to him than he thought.
Over a Zoom call, Parker holds up a framed photograph of three generations of men in his family. “I originally started this company as a way to help my grandpa, who we call Papa,” he says, pointing to the man in the middle of the picture. “He needed support and assistance driving, cleaning the house, and just someone to hang out with.”
Parker’s grandfather was elderly but still independent. He could take care of himself and live on his own but could use some help doing chores and picking up groceries. More importantly, he could use a friend—someone he could rely on while his family was busy at work or with their own kids. Recognizing that his grandfather needed more time than he could provide, Parker created a post on Facebook asking if any of his friends were available to hang out with Papa for $20 an hour.
“He loved his pal,” Parker says. “She was a girl named Andrea. She had come from Venezuela, and Papa came from Argentina, except sixty years before her. But they could relate that way. She didn’t come in a nursing outfit—she was wearing a T-shirt and jeans—and they became like best buddies.”
That trial run served as a foundation for Parker to build a larger company that matched older adults with buddies—or “Papa Pals,” as they’re lovingly referred to in the business. With Parker’s background in telehealth, he knew how to leverage technology to deliver a good healthcare experience in a new way. So, he created a prototype and strung together a small sample of people who were willing to use it.
“Everyone had the same reaction—they really loved it,” he says. “I remember reading an article that said it’s more important to have, say, a hundred people who really love what you’re building than to have millions of people who download your product and never use it. I didn’t have one hundred, but I had ten, and that was good enough for me.”
Parker quit his full-time job and plunged all his efforts into creating the Papa platform. Now, Papa has four hundred full-time employees, twenty thousand Papa Pals, and about a million members who have access to Papa’s services through their health plans for no additional cost. The company has even expanded to include families on Medicaid to help with things like childcare and housecleaning.
Pals go through a series of personality tests, background checks, phone screenings, and training sessions before they’re ready to be linked with a member. During these early sessions, they’re trained on everything from how to use the app to how to respond when a member discusses serious topics like depression—and even how to get a member glasses if they mention needing new ones. Once the member is matched with a Pal, they can request specific services that meet their needs, such as scheduling doctor’s appointments, picking up medication at the pharmacy, setting up reminders to take those medications, and simply socializing.
“We’re not just providing partnership; we’re improving health outcomes.”
“We’re not just providing partnership; we’re improving health outcomes,” Parker says. “We’ve helped reduce loneliness among our members by 80 percent, and we’ve helped cut healthcare costs by taking our members out of unnecessary hospital settings. We also had 97 percent of our members complete their annual wellness exams through our platform and got people to use health risk assessments and improve medication adherence.
“Ultimately, we improve their satisfaction with health plans and reduce what the market calls ‘unhealthy days’—days people feel physically and mentally unwell over thirty days,” he adds. “On the other side, the Pals are earning a living. We have people who wouldn’t necessarily want to be nurses or caregivers, but they want to hang out with older people and help.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Parker tapped into his telehealth knowledge to implement virtual visit technology, which enabled members to use in-person and digital options. Parker notes that the pandemic opened other doors for Papa that will help members immensely in the future.
It encouraged seniors who were embarrassed to talk about being isolated or lonely to be less apprehensive about admitting their feelings and motivated them to learn how to use the technology better. Moreover, parents who were moved into a home office were able to use Papa to help tend to their children while they worked. Lastly, health plans that hadn’t totally bought in to the idea that loneliness was an issue were brought on board.
“Loneliness is something that everyone experiences, and it was only exacerbated during the pandemic,” Parker says. “We were literally sending younger people into older people’s homes, so a lot of people thought Papa would fail. But we doubled our headcount during the pandemic because more health plans wanted to develop a relationship with us, and we expect similar growth for 2022.”
In the coming year, Parker expects Papa to be available in the contiguous states and hopes to explore putting the company’s services in other channels, like hospital systems and senior living centers. For now, Parker remains motivated by the success stories he hears from Pals every day—of the woman who had been a surfer for thirty years getting to go to the beach again with her Pal, or of the man who showed his Pal photos of the animatronics he built for Disney in the ‘30s.
“The stories of older adults are so amazing, and for them to be able to tell their story to someone who cares, while building better relationships with their family members as not caregivers but as granddaughters and sons, is really inspiring,” Parker says. “I feel so proud of what we’ve built, and I’m excited to continue to grow.”