Seattle locals Mark Tarbutton and Alan Allison are no strangers to the difficulties caregivers face when supporting a loved one with dementia. For the last seven years, Mark has watched his mother care for his father who is living with Alzheimer’s disease. Likewise, Alan witnessed his uncle struggle as a caregiver for his aunt when she was living with dementia.
In 2021, the pair founded SupportTree, Inc. and are currently developing a free web and mobile application designed especially for primary caregivers of people living with dementia. This new tool is meant to inspire personal network collaboration to help caregivers with a wide range of respite care options. The concept was so innovative that Mark and Alan were awarded initial funding from Maude’s Ventures, which provides seed funding for innovations in dementia care.
When we shared Mark and Alan’s app with our team of caregiver advisors, they all said, ‘We need this tool to exist!’ That kind of fit between an innovative idea and meeting a community need is exactly the type of project we love to fund.” – Quentin Orem, Director, Maude’s Ventures
Mark and Alan had known each other for years through their work at tech start-ups. Alan had been toying with the idea of creating an app to support dementia caregivers for awhile, so when he and Mark realized they shared a connection to the disease, they knew that with their complementing skill sets this was a problem they could solve together. For them, the project is personal.
Mark was inspired to work on this app in honor of his father, who is living with Alzheimer’s disease. “I first noticed signs of dementia in my dad when his home office began to show an increased use of sticky notes. At the time I thought this was odd because he was an engineer and it was not typical of his highly organized mindset, but I assumed he was very busy with work at the moment,” Mark said. His father’s symptoms continued to progress and he was eventually diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.
“I remember being at the UW Memory and Brain Wellness Center when he received the MCI diagnosis. Honestly, I didn’t fully understand why he was so upset, but he knew exactly what the diagnosis meant for him and his future. I wasn’t aware it was degenerative and attributed his diagnosis to common issues with aging,” Mark said.
Mark’s mother has been his father’s primary caregiver for seven years now. “It’s been very difficult for her. I know that she and my dad had big plans for retirement, but a lot of those things have become too difficult to pursue. Social circles changed and life began to shift towards Alzheimer’s being the central focus. Watching your high school sweetheart and spouse of over 40 years succumb to such a difficult and unfair disease is hard.”
For Mark, he hopes the SupportTree app will help caregivers like his mother, who need help but don’t always know how to ask for it. “Everyone understands the high emotional stress resulting from being a primary caregiver, and at SupportTree, we believe this is a burden that shouldn’t be carried alone. SupportTree is designed to lower social barriers and give friends, family and caregivers the collaborative tools they need to collectively care for someone living with Alzheimer’s. Through this collective caring, we believe this sets caregivers up to provide the best possible care.”
Alan was also inspired by his family’s experience. His aunt with dementia lived in another state and Alan’s family was largely uninformed about what was happening to her as the disease progressed.
“My aunt was an incredibly positive, engaging individual, and university professor in Pasadena, Calif.,” he said. “As the majority of our family lived in Washington, most interactions were primarily over the phone, which I believe led to some cognitive dissonance, at least on my part. I held the memory of her strength and who she was as a person, believing she would pull through, all the while not quite understanding the illness as her Alzheimer’s and dementia continued to progress. As this was the first major illness within our family, and since my aunt was in a remote city, it was difficult to know exactly what was going on, and how to support her and our extended family.”
Alan’s uncle was his wife’s primary caregiver, an experience that took a toll on him. “My uncle dropped everything to care for my aunt, and as the illness progressed it became nearly impossible for my uncle to care for himself, even though he was and is completely healthy. He became a shell of himself, losing a third of his body weight, and his strength was replaced with emotions he held so close to the surface. He was struggling as he lost the love of his life, and was disconnected from the physical help and support of his extended family,” Alan said. Sadly, Alan’s aunt passed away in 2016.
“Our hope with SupportTree and this app is that we can bring clarity and awareness to the current and future stages of Alzheimer’s, what the caregiver may be experiencing, an in turn, foster greater collaboration within the community in support of our loved one living with Alzheimer’s, as well as the health and wellbeing of the primary caregiver,” Alan said.
About the SupportTree App
SupportTree is a free web and mobile application designed for primary caregivers to inspire personal network collaboration for a wide range of respite care options. Founded by Alan Allison and Mark Tarbutton in 2021 and headquartered in Seattle, WA, SupportTree was developed out of a personal need to leverage and empower well-known and devoted friends and family networks to increase communication, transparency and support for people caring for individuals living with Alzheimer’s. With recent funding from Maude’s Ventures, SupportTree is committed and well-positioned to unlock the caregiving community with technology that unites. SupportTree is opening up testing of the mobile app to a select group of caregivers for feedback and feature optimizations. If interested in sharing your experience and providing help to tailor SupportTree for future caregivers, please sign-up for the beta testing group at supporttree.org.
About Maude’s Ventures
The mission of Maude’s Ventures is to invest in people who want to build new ways to meet the needs of the dementia community, and their commitment is to advance care for people living with Alzheimer’s while we wait for a cure. This passion comes from their founders, Maude and Richard Ferry. Maude was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013, and since then, Richard, her husband of 65 years has been looking for new, innovative ways to enrich the lives of people living with dementia and their caregivers. Maude passed away earlier this year, but her legacy lives on through the work of Maude’s Ventures, Maude’s Awards, and the Richard and Maude Ferry Foundation. Visit maudesawards.org or maudesventures.org to learn more.
More than 11 million family and friends care for people living with Alzheimer’s and other dementia. Join us in honoring their love and dedication this November during National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and National Family Caregivers Month by leaving a tribute message at alz.org/honor.