Tech Companies in Silicon Valley Can’t Keep Ignoring Seniors

And then there are some ideas farther afield. A start-up called MyndVR is using virtual reality to provide a sense of liberation to older people. Your body may be unable to travel, but through V.R., you might cross off destinations on your bucket list. The company argues that V.R. could also be therapeutic — that by providing cognitive stimulation and allowing for escape from dreary health care settings, the virtual world can improve older people’s well-being.

Robotics and artificial intelligence could also play a big part in aging. The National Institute on Aging, within the National Institutes of Health, has funded pilot projects to research the use of A.I. assistants to help caregivers, to calm people with dementia who become aggressive at residential facilities and to monitor data from home-based sensors to spot signs of cognitive decline. In a study published in 2021, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada found that robotic assistants and companions — among them Paro, a robotic baby seal that can react to people and changes in its environment — can reduce anxiety and depression and improve the emotional well-being in people with dementia.

But if technology offers some promise for alleviating the health care challenges of an aging society, there’s also a danger of overrelying on quick-fix tech solutions to address deeper societal and economic problems, among them America’s crisis of elder care.

Consider the recent struggles at Papa, a start-up whose app matches young gig workers with older people who need help getting things done — shopping, transportation, household tasks — or are just in need of companionship. Until this year, the company was on a tear. Studies sponsored by the company have shown reduced emergency room visits and hospital readmissions and decreased loneliness among seniors who are connected to Papa’s assistants. The outcomes proved attractive to insurance companies; Andrew Parker, Papa’s founder, told me that more than 100 health plans now cover Papa’s services. In 2021, Papa raised $150 million from, among others, SoftBank Vision Fund, the venture capital fund run by the Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son. The investment valued Papa at $1.4 billion. According to Parker, this year the company’s assistants, called Papa Pals, will conduct about a million visits with older people.

More recently, however, Papa has also become something of a cautionary tale for what could go wrong when the move-fast, break-things ethos of the tech business meets a market of vulnerable seniors. In May, Bloomberg Businessweek reported on confidential company documents that “found dozens of allegations of sexual harassment and assault, as well as an allegation of unlawful imprisonment,” in the encounters between clients and Papa Pals. The company said it regretted these incidents and that it is revamping its security and vetting practices. In July, Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, who heads the Senate Special Committee on Aging, demanded that Papa provide the Senate with a range of data to demonstrate the safety of its service.