Barbara Carroll-Marks knew she needed a change in her life.
After developing Parkinson’s disease, she had been through a particularly rough stretch. The condition worsened to the point where she needed 24-hour home nursing care, an experience she remembers as “truly unpleasant.”
“It was a nightmare,” said Carroll-Marks, a 67-year-old retired systems analyst and author who lives in Deerfield Beach, Fla. “The aides were there just because it was their job. They didn’t really want to be there.”
Her health improved to the point where she no longer required constant care, in 2017, but Carroll-Marks knew she would still need help maintaining her home and getting around. That’s when she saw something online about a company called Papa, and young adults over 18 known as “Papa Pals.”
Carroll-Marks was intrigued by the prospect of spending time with helpers from a much younger generation. That, she thought, might bring her back to the life she wanted to live.
This was not long after the notion of Papa first came to founder Andrew Parker. The idea was generated in an act of desperation to provide help around the house — plus some companionship — for Parker’s grandfather, who was beginning to show signs of dementia.
“I hired a young neighbor to help him,” Parker recalled. “My grandfather absolutely loved it.”
That sparked Parker’s “a-ha moment.” There certainly were plenty of people like his grandfather who could use both help and company, and he figured there also were a lot of college students who’d be interested in making some extra money working flexible schedules. This led to the launch of Papa, named for Parker’s grandfather.
The startup is modeled after ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. Contractors — the Papa Pals — can choose whether they want to take on the jobs requested by Papa members. Its slogan cuts to the chase: “Grandkids On-Demand.”
The requests typically involve doing light housework, providing tech help or taking people shopping or to appointments. But as friendships develop, the jobs become more like visits where sharing time matters as much as finishing chores. Carroll-Marks, for instance, has always loved going to the beach; now her Pals come with her.
“We have another member who had a family wedding,” said Parker. “She’s about 85 years old. Her family lived a distance away and she didn’t want to bother them. So, we sent a Papa Pal, a young woman, with her and she had a really good time at the wedding, too.”
More Than a Paycheck
After starting in Dade County, Fla., Papa is now operating in 13 Florida communities, from Miami to Orlando to Jacksonville. The company hopes to expand into two northeast cities within the next few months, although Parker declined to identify them.
He said the number of young people with access to the Papa mobile app has grown to 600, with a third of them in the Miami area. According to Parker, Papa receives as many as 2,000 applications a month, but accepts only about 4 percent of them.
Before becoming a Papa Pal, an individual must pass a background and a motor vehicle check. Applicants are also given a personality test that measures their levels of empathy and patience. The company has stipulated that Papa Pals be students in some capacity — from attending four-year colleges to taking nursing courses — although that requirement may be loosened in the future.
Parker said the average age is 22, although some Papa Pals are in their 30s. They are paid $15 an hour.
“What we look for,” said Parker, “is someone who’s really passionate about people. What’s nice about the millennial generation is that they want to be part of something that’s bigger than a job that just gives them a paycheck.”
Alan Golan, 24, said he started working for Papa not long after he moved to Florida from New York a year ago. “I thought it would be a worthwhile, positive experience,” he said. “I tend to get along with people older than me.”
“I’ve always appreciated the experience and wisdom that older people have,” added Golan, who’s currently working for Papa full-time. “I get to hear so many stories from people from so many different walks of life.”
Forming Strong Bonds
Papa offers two levels of membership — premium and basic. Premium, which costs $30 per month in addition to the $15 hourly fee, entitles the member to interview Papa Pals and select his or her own three-person team. It also allows the member to do same-day scheduling.
Basic members pay $15 a month, plus the hourly rate. But they need to make reservations at least 24 hours in advance and are assigned whomever is available.
Parker said the company doesn’t reveal how many paying members it has, although a Washington Post story published last summer suggested it was 250. The company is talking to health insurers about including coverage for Papa in their plans, according to Parker, who believes the first deal could close soon.
Walter Pfeiffer bought a Papa membership for his mother, Mabel, earlier this year when it became clear that she could no longer safely drive to her job at Miami International Airport. At 88, she still works there as a customer service agent.
Pfeiffer said the rides to work and back have become a favorite part of his mom’s day, and that she’s been “very, very happy” with the members of her Papa Pal team. In fact, on Mabel’s birthday in late October, one dropped by her apartment to give her a birthday balloon.
Kristena Shannon understands how strong the bond can become between Papa Pals and the older adults they serve. She is back working as a flight attendant for American Airlines, but when she was on maternity leave, Shannon says she was putting in as many as 60 hours a week as a Papa Pal. She spent much of that time with Barbara Carroll-Marks, including days at the beach.
Shannon said they still text each other regularly, and when she leaves for the airport, she’ll often Facetime with Carroll-Marks to let her know where she’s going.
“Barbara says all the time that I make her feel younger,” Shannon said. “We talk a lot about all the places both of us have been. When you spend so much time with a person, you’ve made a friend for life.”
‘Two Humans Connecting is Still the Best’
That’s what Parker said he has long seen as Papa’s ultimate goal.
“Loneliness is a disease,” he said. “We know there are a lot of different ways to help someone deal with it. All the tech that can be used is cool, but two humans connecting is still the best. And, when they come from two completely different generations — a tech-savvy millennial and an old-school senior — well, we really feel good about being able to build these bonds.
“There’s no stigma with a Papa Pal showing up like there might be for someone from home care,” he added. “People don’t feel like they’re being cared for or babied. It’s fun for them to spend time with a young person.”
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