By Riley Kaminer
The US population is rapidly aging. By 2040, about one in five Americans will be age 65 or older, up from about one in eight in 2000. Unfortunately, older adults are also at an increased risk for loneliness and social isolation. As Americans continue to live longer, this will become a more acute problem.
Luckily, there is a South Florida startup working to develop tech-powered solutions to curb the chronic problems of isolation and loneliness in older adults. This approach makes sense, considering Pew research suggesting that the share of those 65 and older who are tech users has grown in the past decade, with a particularly acute growth in smartphone and social media use.
Amy Stapleton is the CEO and co-founder of Chatables. While completing a Ph.D. in German Literature, Stapleton began a career in IT at SAP. She would go on to spend 14 years at NASA as an IT manager.
Since 2016, Stapleton has worked in voice and conversational AI. She gained notoriety for developing ‘skills’ (apps) for Amazon’s Alexa device, winning the distinction of ‘Alexa Champion.’
Stapleton’s mother, who had mild dementia, had gone into assisted living prior to the pandemic. But when COVID hit, her life was turned upside down: she couldn’t leave her room and interact with her friends, and opportunities for visitation were limited.
“It was just really shocking to see how she declined after that. It was devastating to see what had happened,” Stapleton said of the effects isolation had on her mother.
This personal experience prompted Stapleton to develop an Alexa skill for interactive storytelling. The tool she began to develop – which would go on to become Chatable’s first product, Storyteller Cafe – gives older adults an opportunity to have a conversation and take part in a role playing skit.
Users with an Amazon Alexa device simply say “Alexa, open Storyteller Cafe,” and they are transported into a world with four imaginary friends and a series of stories. Activities include skits, trivia, and memory challenges. The idea is to recreate the engagement that older people would have enjoyed by getting out of the house and talking to people.
Storyteller Cafe uses synthetic voices. The major advantage of this approach is that it’s easier to publish more material – no need to work with a voiceover artist. It also enables users to create their own content to deploy on the platform (once the Chatables team approves it).
Ultimately, Stapleton hopes to partner with a home healthcare organization to roll out Chatables as an ancillary service. She notes that Storyteller Cafe might even be more stimulating for people with caregivers, since they’re not having a conversation with one person all the time and Chatables helps train their short term memory.
Last month, Chatables participated in the Connect & Thrive Pitch Competition as part of AARP Innovation Labs. Stapleton told Refresh Miami that although the startup did not win the competition, the pitch was well received. As a finalist, Chatables has the possibility to enter into AARP’s accelerator program.
“That’s fantastic because AARP can open a bunch of doors for you as an age tech entrepreneur and help you establish relationships,” Stapleton said. “It’s something that I’ve really been wanting to do.”
Stapleton works on Chatables alongside co-founder Wayne Richard and a part-time developer. Since retiring from NASA six years ago, Stapleton explained that she has increasingly spent “less time at the beach and on the kayak and more time in front of the computer working on this.” She extols the benefits of an ‘encore career,’ despite perceptions in the startup world: “I’m not sure if people look at me and say, ‘Why isn’t she just retired,’ But, you know, I got to do what I got to do.”
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