Bridging tech's generation gap

Louisville company hopes "digital mailbox" relieves seniors' isolation

Louisville, CO
February 7, 2005

By Matt Branaugh
The Associated Press

Michael Williams describes the technological divide between older and younger generations like this: Elders prefer pen and paper. Younger folks prefer cellphones, e-mail and Internet.

As society becomes more intertwined in all things wired and wireless, the elderly tend to get overlooked.

"In this most connected age, we're disconnecting the elderly, leaving them alone," Williams says. "And isolation and loneliness of the elderly kills them."

A small Louisville company Williams helped start several years ago is trying to bring those generations closer together and wants to help improve the quality of life for graying populations.

Ironically, the solution involves technology. The Internet-based system uses a "digital mailbox" developed at CaringFamily, the 10-employee business founded by Williams and fellow tech veterans Paul Davoust and David Taenzer.

CaringFamily tries to make the gadgetry nearly invisible for seniors, so the system is designed to deliver simplicity while respecting the electronic preferences of the elders' younger relatives.

An estimated 44.4 million American adults provide some type of caregiving to an elder, according to a MetLife Foundation-sponsored study released last April.

"There's this overwhelming sense of frustration families have because we hear in society today that technology is going to solve all problems," says Davoust, CaringFamily's president and chief executive. "Solutions with high-tech assume 'We will change your behavior.' But our assumption is, if you work with the habits and behaviors your customers already have, you're ahead of the game."

CaringFamily's concept, currently undergoing field trials, works like this: The digital mailbox - a printer/scanner that works similar to a fax machine - sits inside the elder's home.

Keeps scammers out

The device uses a phone line receiving messages, photos, articles and other materials sent by family members. Font size and color are customized.

Conversely, the elder can send notes and photos to the family by placing them on the scanner and pushing a button.

All correspondences sent to family members are delivered to a private website account at CaringFamily.com, where they can view and respond to them. Besides sending a scanned version of a grandchild's drawing or a family trip photo, relatives also can send content from the website compiled by CaringFamily, such as crossword puzzles, flowers of the day and "News of the Weird."

The system also grants each family a private network, keeping out outsiders, such as spammers or scam artists.

Williams, the company's chief technical officer, thinks the digital mailbox has several benefits. For older people, it creates a new venue of communication, presumably increasing the frequency and duration of contact with relatives, which can break a cycle of isolation, loneliness and depression that leads to physical and mental decline. It also helps stimulate intellectual activity.

Other avenues of communication obviously exist. Personal visits, phone calls and mail are the traditional means, but they often suffer from time constraints or lack of immediacy, Williams says.

He says the elderly tend to resist PCs: The keyboard keys are too small, as is the print on monitors. And other products pose similar types of hurdles - for instance, the EarthLink Mailstation, which sends and receives e-mail without a computer, still requires typing.

The company hopes the market will embrace its product. About $257 billion is spent each year in the time and resources required for caregiving, according to the MetLife Foundation study, so there's an identifiable group of people already seeking additional tools.

Studies underway

CaringFamily estimates the digital mailbox will cost between $200 and $400, plus monthly subscription fees and ongoing maintenance costs.

Whether it works remains to be seen. Small trials with friends and family have been going on for two years, including one with Ted Santos Sr., Williams' father-in-law who lives in San Diego. The system appears to increase communication levels and activity.

"I'd say, in general, it's been positive for him," Ted Santos Jr. says of his father. "It's definitely helped address some of the loneliness and long-distance issues."

More quantitative studies are underway. One involves CaringFamily's participation in a larger, $5.5 million federal research project at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

"I think what (the digital mailbox) can do for elders in general is it can definitely decrease isolation, which is a huge barrier in aging," says Dr. Cathy Bodine, a member of the company's scientific advisory board who oversees the project at CU Health Sciences. "It gives you another tool in dealing with these issues."

About CaringFamily

CaringFamily provides the first service that brings the therapeutic benefits of family communications to elder care. The service enables assisted living and other care professionals to encourage active dialog between seniors in their care and their families, regardless of location-every day, with virtually no additional effort. Scientific studies point to dramatic therapeutic outcomes from such communications, including enhanced physical and mental health and, ultimately, longer life spans—as well as substantial profitability gains for the senior care companies that provide it. Located in Louisville, CO, CaringFamily is privately held. More information is available at www.caringfamily.com.

To contact us for more information:

CaringFamily, LLC
1003 Turnberry Cir
Louisville, CO 80027-9594
303-442-2607
info at caring family dot com