This Miami startup offers ‘family on demand’ to seniors. The pandemic has boosted need

Salome Cuence-Alfonso knew she needed a job. But little did she know that the connections she’d make at this one would make her new job so rewarding that it didn’t even feel like work.

In May, the 18-year-old started working for Papa, a Miami startup founded in 2016 that provides assistance and socialization to seniors through a phone application, website or 800 number.

Seniors were already a marginalized group before the COVID-19 outbreak, but the pandemic shutdown fueled further isolation. That’s where Cuence-Alfonso and the rest of the Papa staff come in.

The company previously offered in-person companionship, assistance and transportation; during the past few months, the service has gone virtual.

Papa pal cleaning a client’s home. The company previously offered in-person companionship, assistance and transportation; during the past few months, the service has gone virtual.
Papa pal cleaning a client’s home. The company previously offered in-person companionship, assistance and transportation; during the past few months, the service has gone virtual.

Papa founder and CEO Andrew Parker described Papa as a “family- on-demand” service. He employs about 90 “Papa pals” who mostly work in the South Florida area, although about 20% are in other parts of the U.S. and South America, which corresponds with where the clients are located.

“There’s a disproportionate negative impact on older adults specifically associated with the pandemic,” he said. “Of course, as an organization that is exclusively, for the most part, focused on that demographic, obviously that has been very important to us.”

Papa employees have not faced furloughs or layoffs, he said. In fact, he hired 20 more employees during this time to provide the increasing demand of virtual services, growing the company 50%.

Interested clients can find the service by downloading the app or calling 1-800-348-7951.

“I think that because of COVID, older adults are more willing to try new things and more willing to openly say, ‘Yeah, I am a bit lonely, I am a little bit isolated. It would be nice to talk to someone,’” Parker said.

Papa also offers contactless grocery delivery. Most of the services are free through Medicare Advantage providers, he said. But paid plans are available without insurance. Parker and his team were planning to take some of Papa’s services virtual within a year, but the pandemic sped that up. “We are very excited that we are able to help people,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s a big crisis and a need.”

For Cuence-Alfonso, the virtual conversations with clients become learning experiences for both her and the elders.

Salome Cuence-Alfonso has worked as a Papa pal since May.
Salome Cuence-Alfonso has worked as a Papa pal since May.

“I like the idea of hearing in a little bit on other people’s lives and helping in any way I can,” she said.

In addition to keeping them company through conversation, Cuence-Alfonso helps clients with tasks such as online grocery orders or providing them with information they request.

As she looks forward to study speech pathology and audiology at Miami Dade College in the fall, Cuence-Alfonso said that working as a virtual caregiver is preparing her for a career in serving communities that need help.

“It’s an awesome service, and I genuinely like what I’m doing,” she said.

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