Inside the lobby of a Redwood City assisted living center, driver Eric Wong helps 90 year-old Shirley Beitch stand and grasp her walker. Then he guides her outside to his Subaru Outback parked at the curb.
Wong opens the passenger door and flips out a handle behind the seat, and Beitch grabs it to stabilize her as she turns. He holds one arm, then protects her head as she gently backs down into the passenger seat. Wong buckles her in, then puts her walker inside the rear hatchback.
With a Master’s degree in gerontology from Columbia University, Wong doesn’t work for either of the two ride-sharing giants – Uber or Lyft. Instead, he’s betting on the success of Lift Hero, a tiny competitor based in San Francisco that targets a demographic desperate for new transportation options: older adults.
During the drive to a nearby senior center, Wong engages Beitch in light conversation. Is the temperature comfortable? Did she have a nice weekend? Did her children come to visit? He tunes the radio to news, which she likes, and never classical music.
At the senior center, Wong helps her inside to the check-in desk, then carefully places her lunch on the counter just the way she likes it.
Founder Jay Connolly launched Lift Hero last fall – calling it an “Uber for seniors” – to address one of the gravest challenges facing America’s older adult population: mobility.
Isolated seniors are often at the mercy of absurdly inefficient bus routes or impoverished dial-a-ride programs. Stuck at home, their isolation and despair can lead to dire health conditions like depression, high blood pressure and alcoholism.
“We can directly affect their health by getting them to their (medical) appointments,” says Connolly, “but also improve (the rest of their) life as well.”
Ride-sharing services may be essential in helping solve the senior mobility problem, says long-time White House advisor Fernando Torres-Gil, who directs UCLA’s Center for Policy Research on Aging.
“Mobility does not mean public transportation,” said Torres-Gil to an audience at a Santa Clara county senior summit last week. Older adults often can’t navigate buses or the escalators that are often part of public train stations, he said, and need help far beyond the curb.
In June, Uber joined this effort when it launched a six-month senior pilot program in retirement-heavy Gainesville, Florida.
Connolly started Lift Hero to address the problems faced by an aunt charged with finding transportation for his grandmother.
Lift Hero recently completed beta testing its service – its highest monthly service so far tallying a modest 184 rides – and at one point was forced to stop operating until it received final operating approval last month.
Its current service area stretches from San Francisco south to Palo Alto.
At startup, Connolly quickly engaged occupational therapist and elder advocate Sarah Thomas, who in February was named director of Global Innovation for Pennsylvania-based Genesis Rehab Services. (Thomas also consults for the tech incubator Aging 2.0.)
Thomas established a training protocol for all 25 of the company’s current drivers – a mini-course in gerontology. It includes the intricacies of transporting seniors, physical frailties, fall prevention, identifying elder abuse and understanding behavioral conditions such as dementia and “sundowning” – the confusion and agitation that worsens in the late afternoon and evening.
Connolly says this training contrasts sharply with competitors who target a younger demographic and have a narrow focus on transportation instead of the careful customer experience needed by frail adults.
“It’s kind of crazy to me that these other ride sharing companies don’t interview the drivers they have coming on,” he says.
The critical service that differentiates Lift Hero is door-through-door service, especially to doctor’s visits.
“It’s definitely more than a curbside pickup,” says Wong, who started as a Lift Hero grant-writing intern and is today head of Lift Hero’s driver experience.
The company actively seeks out drivers from helping professions – caregivers, nurses, or pre-med students – and they range in age from early 20’s to mid-50’s. They include a retired flight attendant.
“Recent retirees are interested in helping out people slightly older than they are,” says Connolly.
He also wants to provide seniors the comfort of a familiar face by offering regular clients a small pool of familiar drivers.
And for people like Janis Baron – Beitch’s daughter – the company has truly been heroic.
When her mother moved into the assisted living facility in December, it was imperative she stay connected to the Little House Activity Center in nearby Menlo Park – her lifeline to longtime friends and social activities – especially bridge.
“It means the world to her,” says Baron.
The greatest challenge was getting her there.
“I spent all my time on the phone and emailing and texting, working out the details,” sighs Baron, who first tried hiring others to drive her mom. “My whole life was about arranging and re-arranging her rides. I couldn’t get my work done.”
Next was the assisted living facility’s behemoth van, but staffers were overwhelmed with the task; she eventually suffered a fall.
Staffers at the assisted living facility quickly recommended Lift Hero.
“It has been a dream,” says Baron, who heads a Bay Area non-profit. “For one thing they’re caring, good people. They actually like my mom instead of seeing her needs as an annoyance. It’s one of the nicest parts of her day right now.”
Wong says that problems sometimes arise when transporting seniors, and that Thomas is frequently consulted. He cites one rider who grew angry when Wong followed his car’s GPS navigation when the senior wanted a different route… and felt he was being cheated.
And so Lift Hero logs frequent notes on preferred routes and other personal preferences.
“The general sense of patience and respect instead of belittling them,” explains Wong.
Lift Hero charges riders $25 per hour plus $1 per mile, with a $17.50 minimum. Drivers receive 95 percent of each fare. Rides can be arranged through a smartphone app, online, or by phone.
Ironically, Lift Hero also has a second line of business – Lift Hero Lite – that helps Uber and Lyft coordinate rides for older adults throughout California. The business model helps Lift Hero service areas where it doesn’t yet have its own drivers.
“Lyft (and) Uber drivers are generally great, but they can’t provide the same level of service to seniors as our own drivers,” says Connolly. “All – or almost all – of our passengers who have used both services prefer a Lift Hero driver when available.”
Connolly says today Lift Hero is “just scratching the surface” of potential business. With the Affordable Care Act requiring hospitals to pay expenses for patients re-admitted within 30 days of discharge, safe and effective home transitions are becoming more critical; thus, partnering with hospitals is a potential place for dramatic growth.
“Our mission is to increase freedom for as many seniors as we can,” he says.