When Neal Shah's wife got cancer when he was in his mid-30s, he tried to balance being a caregiver and continuing his career.
The pressure of caring for her through several rounds of chemotherapy, failed surgeries and a medically-induced coma eventually led Shah to quit his job.
Shah, a UNC alumnus, was also a caregiver for his grandparents and watched his mother quit her job to become a full-time caregiver too.
“We believe that these people are doing a lot of care within their own family at a great sacrifice to their time, their income, oftentime at the sacrifice of their own mental health and physical health,” he said. “And right now there aren't many options for them to get a break.”
Shah eventually began working with Gavry Eshet at the UNC computer science department in late 2020 to, in Shah's words, “build something like an Uber for caregiving."
The two co-founded CareYaya, an online registry to find student caregivers, by bringing on students at universities in North Carolina, especially those on pre-health tracks, to serve as caregivers.
The platform launched in early 2022 but became more popular at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, with over 1,500 student caregivers being matched through the site and over 500 families using their services.
Shah, the CEO of CareYaya, decided to hire college students because he thought it would be a good way for them to gain healthcare experience while also getting paid for their work.
“I think having that perspective is pretty important when you want to go into a field where you're gonna be caring for patients because you’re only gonna see that patient for a fraction of the time, but when you're at home they need around-the-clock care,” said Sean Ahaotu-Simelane, a caregiver with CareYaya and a junior on the pre-med track at UNC.
The site has no minimum hours required for students to work. CareYaya currently works with universities around the state, including UNC, Duke, Elon, East Carolina University and UNC Greensboro.
Roxy Garrity, the director of communications at CareYaya, said she is working on a partnership with the Dementia Alliance of North Carolina to raise awareness for caregiver needs.
"They need time to care for themselves basically, and we're here for them to provide that," she said.
Along with the difficulties of being a caregiver for family members, Shah said he was also frustrated with the lack of accessibility for care and the quality of current caregiving programs.
"I personally think that the existing care industry is a model of labor exploitation,” Shah said. "Most traditional local care companies are charging 30 bucks an hour to the families. They're not paying anywhere close to that to the caregiver."
CareYaya combats this issue by allowing the family to pay the caregiver directly at approximately $15 an hour, which goes directly to the caregiver. That rate does not change for overnight stays or weekends.
Health equity is another problem that CareYaya is trying to remedy, Shah said.
"If you think about health equity as a major problem then oftentimes things like race, socioeconomic status, disability status, all these things are intertwined,” he said. "So the people who need the help the most are actually not getting it. So by developing a technology platform, the tech platform doesn't discriminate, right? Anyone can go out there and access and request the help.”
Caregivers often work with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and learn how to care for different conditions throughout the process of caregiving. In the future, CareYaya also hopes to connect services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said CareYaya caregiver and UNC first-year Hailey Baldwin.
She said the job gives caregivers the opportunity to think about how they are giving back to the community.
“I'm just always glad that I can be there for the person and I know it's harder for the family than it is for me,” Baldwin said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misrepresented CareYaya as a care agency. The organization is a caregiver registry, but does not directly hire employees. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
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