For anyone newly managing their parents’ finances, trying to understand medical directives, or generally feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities of caring for a family member, there’s a new place to turn online for answers. The web site features a personal offer of support: “Hi Friend: I’m here to help.”
On the other end of that chat box is Renee King, a 36-year-old entrepreneur, whose life turned upside down five years ago when she became a caregiver to her parents and explored the reaches of technology for help.
King started Tech.Ur.Elders in 2017 to connect caregivers with applications and other technology she has found helpful in her own life – digital tools that help sort financial paperwork, for example, or establish power of attorney or monitor a parent’s diet and exercise.
Her message for surviving caregiving is simple: “TECH yourself before you WRECK yourself,“ her site says.
Nearly a quarter of the 43 million Americans who provide unpaid care for an elderly or disabled family member is a part of the millennial generation, born between about 1980 and 1996. King’s clients mainly consist of these younger caregivers, who are doing unpaid caregiving work on top of, or in lieu of, building careers, becoming parents, pursuing higher education or simply learning to navigate the adult world for themselves.
“It’s a role reversal becoming your parents’ parent while you’re still struggling to ‘adult’ on your own,” she says.
What this growing group has in common is that, unlike many older caregivers, they are looking to their smartphones and searching the world of apps and technology for answers and for support.
Since finding the most useful technological resources can be time consuming, King aims to help. She fields requests from caregivers — whether by online chat, email or phone — and follows up to create a personalized set of technology recommendations based on clients’ caregiving needs.
Becoming a caregiver
King was 31-years old when she learned that her mother had ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. She was living in Stamford, Conn. and working for a consulting firm at the time. “I was doing my thing,” she says.
She began traveling back and forth a few times a week to her parents’ home 30 minutes away in New York City. Her mother was losing movement in her arms, and so she helped her bathe, run errands, and go to church. A year later when her mother transitioned to a nursing home, she moved into her parents’ home full-time to help her father, who has a history of abusing alcohol.
As her life was rapidly changing, she looked to technology to help her reclaim some of her freedom and to give her time to work: quitting her job was not an option. “Ending up in poverty—that was one of my biggest fears,” she says.
Her mother could no longer use her hands or talk, so the only way to check in with her was usually to drive to the nursing home. But rather than making that trip every time, she experimented with a two-way video chat designed for pets. She reasoned that her mother could press it with her foot, which would prompt a video call. The technology worked, but she had better luck later on with Amazon Alexa.
When she wanted to travel out of the country to visit her boyfriend at the time, she needed to find a way to check in on her father as well. Her dad’s “clam-shell cell phone” had no video capabilities, so she got him a ‘GrandPad,’ a simple tablet with four main buttons, including one that would call her.
It was enough to help her escape for 10 days to the other side of the world.
As she learned about new technologies, she began reviewing them on her blog. She has reviews for an app that coordinates activities for someone living remotely, a device that will automatically shut off the stove if cooking is unattended for too long, and a washing machine that washes humans (“Sorry,” she says, “this one is only sold in Japan!”)
In 2018 she began seeking funding to scale her early stage company and to develop an artificial intelligence powered bot to help respond to caregivers’ questions. That same year, King was runner up in a national pitch contest hosted by AARP for Innovations in Caregiving.
Before crisis hits
As her caregiving experiences have evolved, so has her vision for her company. She is tightening her focus on helping younger caregivers plan for some of the toughest moments they will face.
She recalls the day, a few years ago, when her mother stopped breathing and she had to make a life-or-death call for which she was not prepared.
“The first thing the emergency room staff said to me was ‘Does she have a DNR?’” she recalls, referring to the Do-Not-Rescuscitate agreement families can fill out spelling out a patient’s wishes. “I had no clue,” King says. The moment stays with her.
She begged the doctors to keep her mother alive, but her mother’s quality of life was never the same. She moved into a skilled nursing facility and was put on a ventilator. “I always question myself,” King says. Last November, King faced the decision again when her mom became very ill and King had to decide on a range of interventions. In December, her mother died.
Her death felt sudden even as King knew it was imminent. She is still coming to terms with it.
“If you are the person who has to take care of business, you don’t have time to grieve,” she says.
Planning and paying for a funeral brought a new set of confounding choices. King thinks she can play a role in helping others prepare for these inevitable rites of passage – and she can use her experience to make theirs’ a little easier.
“Thinking ahead about what you need to do is a part of ‘adulting,’” she says. “It shouldn’t have to be a crisis.”