A new app is helping Alaskans with disabilities and memory loss become more independent

A man sits on the ground next to his DVD player.
Alex Davidson loads his favorite CD into his DVD player. Davidson uses the app MapHabit to help with daily routines and tasks. The app is one way Alaska can start to compensate for a shortage of care workers. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Donna Davidson used to have to help her son Alex shave. She’d tell him when he’d shaved enough and remind him to check with his hands for spots he’d missed. Alex is 39 years old, has Down syndrome and is on the autism spectrum. He struggles with daily tasks and spends most of the week living in a residential care center that provides supervision and assistance.

But for the past few months, Alex has been able to shave by himself using a new app. It’s called MapHabit, and it allows Donna to create step-by-step guides for her son with videos and pictures. Alex has always been a visual learner. Starting in second grade, his mother used to draw schedules for Alex with pictures of his activities for the day. And now, in the MapHabit app, Alex can tap on the picture buttons for the different “maps” for tasks Donna has created for him.

“We have one for shaving, one for tooth brushing and one for flossing,” Donna said. “And if I’m standing there, he can do everything independently with the map, and does a good job and is proud of himself.” 

For the Davidson family, MapHabit is a way to increase Alex’s independence, to reduce the time it takes for Alex to finish things and to free up some of his mom’s energy. 

For lots of families in Alaska, MapHabit could become indispensable. The state has a shortage of care workers and many families are stretched thin. Alaska recently passed a bill that allows family members to get paid for taking care of someone with a disability or an elder. With the labor shortage, many families have to decide who will leave a job to care for an aging parent or a child with a disability. 

Kim Champney, executive director of the Alaska Association on Developmental Disabilities, said tools like MapHabit will only become more important for people with disabilities. She said the labor shortage is projected to get worse as Alaska’s population ages and the state continues to lose more working-age people. 

“We need to think differently about support,” Champney said. “How do we help people live the life they want to live if we are not going to have the same number of human beings available to provide that support? And that’s where we can get really innovative.”

She said apps like MapHabit, which are sometimes called assistive or enabling technology, are not meant to replace people. She likens it to the way self-checkout lines in grocery stores allow stores to function with fewer employees. 

“What we need to do in our service system is really be thoughtful about when you need a human being in the room, when you need that human interaction and when you don’t,” Champney said.

Alaska was one of the first states to use MapHabit. The founder and CEO Matt Golden got funding from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority to pilot a program for 20 people with developmental disabilities. And MapHabit is working with Daybreak Inc. on a pilot for five people with traumatic brain injury, a common injury in the state. Golden was introduced to those organizations by HealthTIE, which connects nonprofits and state departments with entrepreneurs who are working to solve some of the country’s trickiest health problems. 

Once he visited Alaska, Golden thought it would be a great place to pilot the app. He said because of Alaska’s geography, it’s the epitome of rural America. 

“If we can pull this off in Alaska, we really can pull this off anywhere,” Golden said. “And we’re doing it.

Golden said research has shown the app helps people gain independence and reduces caregiver burden and stress, which is especially important in a field with low wages and high burnout. 

Golden explained a bit about how the app works. He said for people with dementia or traumatic brain injury, often their conscious memory is impaired. They may not be able to recall, for example, the first president of the United States or how many inches are in a foot. So the app bypasses that brain system and relies on procedural or muscle memory. 

The app doesn’t just help people get through their daily tasks; it helps them get better at them. Golden said after using MapHabit for a while, even people with memory loss can start to learn and remember the steps.

“Because you’re following it in that same order and you’re seeing those same pictures, within a matter of weeks, you end up being able to perform those activities without even knowing it,” Golden said. “And that’s really the most innovative aspect of MapHabit is bypassing that damage and memory system that you consciously use to recall facts and information.”

Now Golden said the app is being used in 25 states and in some of them, Medicaid covers the cost. If the pilot programs in Alaska go well, Golden said he hopes MapHabit could be used statewide in schools and hospitals and like some states, covered under Medicaid. The company has different pricing options but the app costs at least $200 for setup, which includes one-on-one support, and has a monthly subscription fee of $50. 

A son and a mother posed for a portrait outside.
Alex Davidson (left) spends his weekends with his mother, Donna Davidson. During the weekdays, Davidson lives in a residential care center. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Back in the Davidson home, Donna said she wants to create a map for Alex for how to heat up food. The last time he used a microwave, he nearly caused a fire when he cooked a cookie for 10 minutes. But Donna thinks it’s essential for 39-year-old Alex to keep gaining independence. 

“My son’s getting into the older man category,” Donna said and laughed. “As much as a person can have some independence, it’s really, really important. I think they can and want to feel proud of themselves just as much as those of us without specific disabilities.”

RELATED: Anchorage Museum holds ‘Sensory Friendly’ morning for visitors with disabilities

Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at rcassandra@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Rachel here.

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