CLEARWATER, Florida — Nilsa Torres, 70, and her frail 91-year-old mother Ignacia Rodriguez rarely left the modest two-bedroom apartment they share in this Gulf Coast retirement community. Torres is Rodriquez’s daughter, but also her primary caregiver — a relationship complicated by the conflation of love and need.
They often didn't do much of anything, and it was making Torres feel trapped and lonely.
“I would love to do more for my mother, like even take her out,” Torres told VICE News. “A lot of times I know she wants to do it, but she declines because she thinks that it's too much work for me.”
Then came the app — and the young woman — who changed their life.
A Miami-based startup called Papa provides what they call a “grandkid on demand” service, where they send a vetted college-age person or young adult for companionship and transportation to seniors in need. Clients can use the app, but Papa’s average customer is 75 years old, so most people just call in for the service.
As soon as Torres heard about the program, she signed up, and she and her mother have been getting weekly visits from Christine Perez.
“I got off my Celexa [anti-depressant],” Torres said. “My mother started eating again, and she's gained weight. She's happy and, I mean, what can I tell you — she's a different person.”
The cost of loneliness is real, nearly $7 billion a year to Medicare alone, according to a 2018 AARP study. Which is why Papa has caught the attention of numerous states’ Medicare Advantage programs. As of press time, Papa was offered in major cities in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, with plans to expand soon to Arizona, California, Texas, New York, and New Jersey.
We visited Torres and Rodriguez when Christine made one of her visits.
This segment originally aired May 30, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.