Corwin and Farrow Call Grammaphone

Amber Corwin and Franklin Farrow have developed a “telepresence” device out to tackle loneliness among the elderly. Photo

Amber Corwin and Franklin Farrow have developed a “telepresence” device out to tackle loneliness among the elderly. Photo

Amber Corwin started training from an early age to become a champion figure skater. The sport’s demanding travel schedule meant she was often a continent away from her Peninsula  family. Calls to her grandparents were a rare treat when travelling.

Franklin Farrow grew up in the United Kingdom, where his father worked was a doctor and saw many of his patients on house calls. The trade brought him to the homes of rich and poor, and one ailment appeared to strike the elderly with an equivalent lack of class discrimination: loneliness.

Corwin and Farrow are now married partners in Call Grampma, an easy-to-use device that beams sound and images from a phone or other device to a tablet repurposed as a video phone.

Corwin and Farrow frame their sales pitch around “Joe and Frida,” a fictional couple.

“They’re good through their 60s. But as they get into their 70s, they start to lose some of their appetite for ‘technological complexity,’” Farrow said. The typical customer for their product is a middle-aged adult looking to buy the device for a parent — someone like Joe or Frida.

The simplicity of the product, they say, is part of its allure. Call Grampma comes with all the software uploaded. There are no menus to navigate. On the videophone, each contact is identified by a picture of the person. That person, presumably a younger family member, does need to download the Call Grampma app to their smartphone.

The ease of the Call Grampma is what sold Anna Gould, a Redondo Beach resident whose mother lives in Temecula. She visits her mother twice a month, and uses the Call Grampma to fill the time in between.

Gould bought the product for her mom as a Christmas present. Her children had tried to show their grandmother how to use video chatting on a cell phone, but it never seemed to work. Now, up to four generations of the family commune without having to battle traffic on the 91 East.

Call Grampma’s video phone connects to phones and devices through an app. Photo courtesy Amber Corwin

“They were trying to teach her how to Facetime. They probably tried to show her 100 times,” Gould laughed. “But when we saw this, it was, ‘Oh my gosh, she just has to push one button?’ When our cell phone rings and when we pick up she sees our faces and we just talk to her. She absolutely loves it.”

Fittingly for its low-tech ethos, the humble stand was one of the design elements Corwin and Farrow tinkered with the most. They initially thought about including wheels, but worried it would tip over. The current version is sturdy but lightweight, and is easily positioned at eye-level for a person sitting down. Most of the weight is in the tablet’s lithium ion battery, which can hold a charge for as long as three weeks.

The product arrives at a time of increasing concern about the effects of solitude. Last year, in Farrow’s native United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a “Minister for Loneliness.” In the United States, about 25 percent of men and 45 percent of women over 75 live alone, according to census data.

Loneliness in this group is associated with a host of medical issues. Some of these problems stem from physical infirmity, like not having someone to help with grocery shopping. But other associated conditions, including high blood pressure and dementia, are harder to explain, and seem to be rooted in the simple lack of people to talk to.

Corwin and Farrow have partnered with Little Brothers, a San Francisco-based charity that matches volunteers with the elderly, and the Call Grampma.The organization is launching a pilot program to use Call Grampma to improve contact between volunteers and the elderly. Cathy Michalec, Little Brothers’ executive director, said that loneliness among the elderly has long been a problem. What’s changed, she said, is the graying of the population.

“This organization has been around 27 years. Maybe seniors can’t go to the senior center because they can’t get down the stairs. Or they can’t drive anymore. Or they lose their social network when they retire,” she said. “As baby boomers age, that’s what’s happening. In San Francisco, 25 percent of population by 2020 is going to be elderly. People are just living longer.”

Locally, the Beach Cities Health District is establishing similar volunteer programs and crafting long-term plans to address the “Silver Tsunami.”

Corwin and Farrow are discovering applications beyond what they initially imagined.

“It’s not just for a younger person communicating with an older person. It can be used to set up networks, with multiple elderly people talking together. Imagine recreating the feel of a family dinner, with a bunch of different people together,” Corwin said.

The product recently became available on Amazon, and they hope to be selected for “Shark Tank,” the popular television show in which entrepreneurs compete for funding. They are looking to attract investors to increase production.

Corwin and Farrow view their product less as a phone enhancement than as means for “telepresence.” With its larger screen and elevated position on the stand, it mimics the feeling of having another person nearby, like a neighbor, even if the two aren’t talking to one another the whole time. Farrow said that, by allowing for these more passive interactions, “hopefully a bit of that wisdom of the elderly will rub off.”

Michaelec, of Little Brothers, said that she too is interested in the “telepresence” possibilities. She said that, at orientations she notices that many of the young volunteers seem lonely, themselves. They are often freshly arrived tech workers, whose work environment does not provide the social connection humans crave and need.

“This device that Amber and Franklin have shared with us, it’s reciprocal: both sides are getting something out of it.”

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