A wave of tech startups are changing how we care for our elders

The growing number of Canadians tasked with caring for elderly parents are turning to their iPhones for help

Younger and older woman looking at a smartphone together

(Lucia Lambriex/Getty)

In a typical day, Dina Theodoropoulos will make multiple calls and at least one visit to check in on her elderly mother, Helen, who has numerous health conditions that necessitate a rigorous medication schedule. Theodoropoulos, a 47-year-old interior designer living in Toronto, also works full time, chairs a hospital committee and volunteers regularly. She is one of eight million unpaid caregivers in Canada who are thrown into the role without formal training after a loved one—usually a parent—becomes chronically ill, according to the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP). As the population ages, their ranks are swelling: By 2020, one in three Canadians will moonlight as a caregiver. And their work is significant: The typical caregiver spends 20 hours per week tending to a loved one. Collectively, the value of their unpaid service is $25 billion a year in Canada alone.

These caregivers are under a tremendous amount of physical, emotional and financial pressure—especially if they also have children of their own to attend to. “Stress is a huge issue among caregivers,” says Gary Hepworth, who owns a Toronto franchise of Premier Homecare Services and chairs a local chapter of CARP. “They’re looking for ways to manage things.” Yet the resources currently available to help them tend to be complicated, inconvenient and, when it comes to private care, expensive.

Technology is poised to offer the solution. In the U.S., entrepreneurs and health-care providers have created many digital products to help caregivers, from pill- and appointment-management apps to monitoring systems. In Canada—an environment with radically different processes and supports for dependent patients—the supply of such tools is nowhere close to meeting the surging demand, signalling that caregiver-focused technology may be the greatest untapped niche in health-care tech north of the border.

The time is right: Not only are today’s boomer and gen-X caregivers comfortable with digital technology, but so too are the parents they’re caring for. According to Pew Research, three out of five seniors use the Internet, aided largely by the intuitive design of iPads and smartphones. Nonagenarians accustomed to regular FaceTime chats with their great-grandchildren don’t resent pings about their pills, and the Fitbit-wearing, smartphone-toting adult children tasked with their care need little convincing of the convenience of scheduling a neurologist appointment through an app.

John Whitehead knows first-hand how helpful tech can be. His own mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s—and his sudden move into the role of caregiver—prompted the Sudbury, Ont., entrepreneur to start Care Link Advantage in 2009. The home-monitoring company installs sensors around the patient’s home that notify caregivers of falls, night-time wandering and sleep irregularities. “Our ultimate goal is to support caregivers and enable seniors to be safe and continue living independently,” Whitehead explains. Demand has been strong, and as more Canadian public health agencies fund it, he expects business to grow further.

Such caregiving technology is rife with opportunity, says Rajiv Mehta, the Silicon Valley–based founder of Bhageera Consulting, which specializes in consumer health. Mehta has been studying family caregiving for more than a decade, and his research suggests companies pursuing this niche will find success with solutions that are comprehensive (with the product’s services available at all times, even if it’s only needed sporadically), intuitive and designed for the interruptions that proliferate in caregivers’ busy lives. “We’re finally starting to understand caregivers’ needs well enough to build great solutions,” says Mehta.

Theodoropoulos is seeing it happen. A few months back, in order to co-ordinate her mother’s care, she started to use Elizz—a new online portal developed by the Markham, Ont.-headquartered not-for-profit agency Saint Elizabeth Health Care to centralize services and resources for both caregivers and patients. With Elizz, she can arrange virtual checkups for Helen, schedule in-home visits with professionals and, if she needs it,  resources to attend to her own well-being. This provides tremendous peace of mind: “I feel less stressed knowing help is only a click away.”