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INNOVATORS Q&A

Providence startup offers help for people caring for a loved one with dementia

Layne Mayer, cofounder of Visit.
Layne Mayer, cofounder of Visit.Marc Zaller

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Layne Mayer, co-founder of VISIT, a monthly subscription activity kit and app for family members and friends caring for people living with dementia.

What is VISIT, and what inspired you to launch it?

VISIT is a Providence-based startup that will help caregivers in creating positive relationships with loved ones living with Alzheimer’s disease or other causes of cognitive decline and dementia. Last summer, we did a deep dive in market research and found a real need for a large and growing market. We are refining our business model through MassChallenge Rhode Island, and we plan to launch with the VISIT kit and app in 2021.

I was inspired by my mom, Dr. Lynn Serper, one of our three cofounders of VISIT and a pioneer in social and cognitive therapy for people with dementia. Over 20 years ago, she developed a social engagement method, working with people living with dementia and their families, helping them feel more confident in conversations and in daily life. She guided families on strategies to stay connected with their loved ones and continue to have meaningful relationships despite their diagnoses.

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Through the stories she shared, I recognized the incredible impact she was having on a one-on-one scale and how lucky these families were. I was driven to come up with a way to adapt the Serper Method and make it something anyone could learn to do — to make it accessible and engaging to all families needing support and connection.

What do caregivers receive with a VISIT subscription?

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A subscription will include an activity kit delivered monthly as well as unlimited access to the VISIT app. Each month, families will receive a box of curated activities: social, cognitive, creative, and sensory — all designed to be fun and engaging.

That kit also includes a magazine offering guidance on how to use each of that month’s activities, no matter their loved one’s ability, stage, or mood. We also include helpful tips, stories, inspiration, and a sense of community. VISIT structures social time, whether relaxing at home or visiting at a facility. Our goal is to empower families and friends to continue to positively engage with their loved ones.

We expect the subscription to cost about $40 per month.

What does the app do?

It supports the journey with behavior-tracking capabilities and a family communication tool that will help families create long-term strategies for the most positive visits and engagement.

Visiting family or friends that are part of the care circle and signed in to the app will be able to rate a series of defining yet simple questions after each visit with their loved one. Over time, a behavioral profile will begin to emerge and guide them on how and when to have the most rewarding interactions.

For example, you might find that your loved one is happiest and most responsive if you visit her right after lunch, in a private and quiet space and hold her hand continuously. You will also learn which activities create the most positive experiences. This helps regular visitors as well as those family or friends that can only come occasionally.

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The app will also include a family communication tool where care circles can stay connected and feel supported, sharing updates and responsibilities in a secure and searchable place. In a later version, we will also add features including a music and sound library, family photo album, a feed of relevant articles, and a social network where you can connect with other caregivers.

How has the coronavirus pandemic added to the challenges that people face in caring for loved ones with dementia?

The emotional stress that 90 percent of dementia caregivers already experienced pre-COVID is worse than ever. Many of those with loved ones in facilities have not seen their loved one in months. Many have had to watch their loved ones with dementia rapidly decline due to reduced social time or disruptions in daily routine. Many have added the tasks of home-schooling children and working from home (and worrying about the world) on top of the already full-time job of caring for someone with dementia.

Even before the pandemic, it was difficult for family caregivers to maintain meaningful, rewarding relationships with their loved ones with dementia. Now more than ever, family caregivers could use the structure and support of VISIT to make interactions easier, more positive, and more fun.

How many people are serving as unpaid caregivers in the United States?

There are more than 16 million unpaid caregivers, meaning spouses, family members, and friends. Caregiving is a difficult, years-long challenge that takes both physical and mental tolls.

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Ninety percent of dementia caregivers report their biggest challenge is emotional stress, including isolation, exhaustion, sadness, and guilt. Many find it difficult and uncomfortable to visit with people with dementia, and it’s especially hard for family members or close friends who feel like their loved one is a completely different person and that their relationship will never be the same. Some of the numbers are stunning and so sad: 32 percent of people in one study said they would no longer visit someone that doesn’t recognize them, and 40 percent of primary Alzheimer’s caregivers die before their loved one from the related stress.

We hope to increase positive social time by reducing the hesitation and anxiety around spending that time and by making it less daunting for friends and extended family to remain involved. Family caregivers need relief, and with VISIT, we hope to provide some with the structure and guidance from the monthly activity kit and the long-term goal-setting and family connection within the app.

VISIT is a finalist for the Cox Business 2020 “Get Started Rhode Island” competition, which offers $50,000 in prizes. What would you do with that prize money, and what do you have planned for the company?

Winning “Get Started Rhode Island” would help us fund our phase-one app development and accelerate the availability of VISIT, getting the highest-quality solution to market as soon as possible.

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Right now, we’re completing a round of consumer research and product testing, planning for an academic user test with a renowned research institution, and preparing a limited soft launch of the VISIT kit to customers later this year. We’ll use this continued research to refine our product for our 2021 launch.

If anyone is interested in participating in our consumer insight survey and beta test round, please get in touch. Also, follow us on social media (@thevisitkit on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook), which will become more active as we get close to launching.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.