Effective cure for loneliness? Pay a monthly fee to rent a friend

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Carenote Illustration by Mike Royer/KCRW.

Chronic loneliness affects 60 million Americans, and its impact on physical health is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That's according to businessman David Yeom at a recent LA-based conference called Aging into the Future.

Yeom offers a solution. For a monthly fee, his 6-month-old Santa Monica-based startup Carenote connects lonely Americans with a Care Pal, a person in the Philippines who calls regularly to chat.

Carenote has two types of customers: adults who buy the service for their parents, and people who sign up themselves. 

One customer is Debie Brumit, a woman in her mid-50s who lives in Woodbury, Tennessee, a town of roughly 2,600 people about an hour southeast of Nashville. She signed up for a free trial when a Carenote ad popped up on her Facebook. Days later, she got a call from a woman who said her name was Dawn. 

Debie and Dawn quickly hit it off, bonding over their pet birds. Debie spends pretty much all her time with her birds. Debie, who has worked at a community college cafeteria, an alzheimer's facility, and an underwear factory, is now home a lot. She’s disabled and doesn't get out much anymore.

Debie married young and had two boys. But her husband was an abusive alcoholic, and she left him after eight years together. She remarried, but that union didn’t work either. “He was a little promiscuous, and I just couldn't take it, so I left," she said.

Then Debie moved in with her niece and got her first bird, a little cockatiel  named Tweety. She fell in love all over again, as she told Dawn. 

Then she met her third husband. "He’s the best thing that ever happened to me. He loved birds. He and Tweety… they were like father and son," she said. 

Debie taught Tweety to bow his head, close his eyes, and pray before every meal. Then at one point, Tweety flew away, and her third husband passed away after that, Debie said. 

Over the years, Debie took in more birds. She even trained them by playing YouTube videos of other birds singing and doing tricks. She taught her bird Cosmo Kramer to drink coffee from a tiny mug, and every morning they would have breakfast together. She sometimes put them in a cage in the back of a small wagon and took them out for walks.

As Debie bonds with Dawn over birds, she doesn't actually know Dawn’s real name. Care Pals use pseudonyms for safety reasons. Before they start taking calls, the Care Pals go through a six-week training course on things like active listening and what to do if someone talks about suicide. Care Pals are not medically certified, so they're limited in what to do if someone has mental health issues. And because of the time difference, Care Pals start their shifts at midnight.

Dawn has worked for Carenote for four months, and has 10 regular clients. The job pays about double the average wage in the Philippines.

Debie said that talking to Dawn has helped her feel much less lonely. But the future of their relationship is uncertain. Debie’s free trial expires soon.

“If it was to the point that I needed to pay a monthly subscription, I probably would. I really do like talking to Dawn. She’s like a friend of the family. 

I guess I would have to see what the rates really are," Debie said.

Like many seniors, Debie lives on a fixed income and isn’t sure she could afford more than $10 a month. The cheapest plan Carenote offers is $29.99 per month. 

Carenote CEO David Yeom said the service's goal is to create a true support system, which he called a security blanket. But what happens when the free trial ends and Carenote takes away that security blanket?

Credits

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Kathryn Barnes

Reporter:
David Weinberg