Last December, my mother, Jean Brandenburg, died peacefully at home just days after her 85th birthday. In her last years, she suffered a whittling away of balance, endurance, and especially frustrating for her, sight.
Jean loved to read. For 60 years, she read nothing but mystery stories. When she turned 80, she made a sudden switch to romance novels. Her favorites featured brawny gentlemen imposing themselves on feisty Regency heroines, preferably in the grass. (This made me feel like the deli customer in the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally: “I’ll have what she’s having.”)
As her sight diminished, she used low-tech solutions to fulfill her reading passion: at first, light and a magnifier, and later, audio books. She had little patience for high-tech help, even tossing her cellphone in the trash because she never used it.
In contrast, her sister-in-law, Aunt Bert, aged 88, embraces technology to keep in touch with her children and grandchildren. “I just bought a Wow! computer. Will you come over to help me set it up?” she asked recently.
The Wow! computer turned out to be an all-in-one touchscreen with a locked desktop that only allows specific functions: Touch this button for email, this for video chat through the built-in camera, and that one for news. I linked her fresh Gmail account to the email button and set her up on Skype for video chat.
Wow! computer for Seniors
FirstStreet markets this 20” touchscreen designed to get seniors online and to keep them out of trouble. The locked desktop and Linux operating system prevent users from accidentally downloading programs and viruses. The touchscreen is handy for users who lack the dexterity to type or use a mouse. The $1,000 price tag and lack of productivity software means that this is not the machine for everyone. Still, it may be just the thing for newbies who just want a computer to keep in touch with the modern world.
It turns out that the Wow! computer is really a rebranded Telikin produced by Venture 3 Systems in Chalfont, Pa. This company imports all-in-one PCs and then loads them up with the Linux operating system and its proprietary software. Ven ture 3 provides patient, responsive phone support for its tentative customers. Also, each Telikin comes equipped with a remote assistance feature called Tech Buddy, which allows an other user to port in and demonstrate which buttons to push.
After I turned on Aunt Bert’s machine, I began to hook up her internet modem. Did it get its signal over a cable or the phone line? No! Following the suggestion of the Wow! computer people, Bert had contracted with Clear.com to receive her internet signal wirelessly through the 4G mobile network. We placed the modem near a window, plugged it in, and, violà, it picked up the signal and began feeding high-speed internet into the computer.
Bert’s plan costs $50 per month and she can end the contract at any time. Clear.com is now available in 80 cities across the U.S. The company Clearwire, based in Bellingham, Wash., plans expansion of its network over the next year. Check the site to see if your city has coverage.
“Tell everyone about this,” Bert encouraged me. “I love this computer!”
Other Computers Designed for Silver Surfers
The Wow! computer isn’t the only computer designed for seniors who may have problems with hearing, sight, dexterity, and memory. Here are a couple of others.
Enablemart: Senior PCs
Enablemart sells assistive technology for all kinds of disabilities. It features HP SeniorPCs loaded with the QualiWORLD interface that overlays the regular Windows desktop. This software allows users to make a single click to perform common tasks such as sending or receiving email, surfing the web, writing, and even controlling the household environment. There are several models from which to choose, with costs ranging around $1,110 to $2,000. The QualiWORLD software suite can be purchased separately for installation on your own PC [www.enablemart.com/Catalog/Hardware/QualiWORLD-5-Suites] at a cost of $1,220 to $3,000.
A Plus Senior Computer
A small Florida company, Computer Tutor Plus, assembles and sells a Windows 7 all-in-one and also a laptop that feature only three icons on the desktop: a button for email, one for Google, and one for games. Dale Dion, company president, writes, “We make over 40 ‘adjustments’ to the computer so that it’s extremely easy for seniors to use. It is a fully functioning computer, so as they progress, there are no limits on what they can do.” Computer Tutor Plus also supplies simple print manuals and offers a remote connection service to troubleshoot from afar.
If you want a simple interface for a senior but don’t want to buy a dedicated computer to run it, consider a subscription to a web-based system.
Toronto’s Jonathan Seliger’s company offers a web-based subscription solution for easy senior browsing. For about $150 per year, InTouchLink offers a simple interface designed for use through the Firefox browser [www.mozilla.org] on any computer or tablet including Macs and iPads. It offers only eight large buttons, including ones for email, photos, and the web. InTouchLink stores the email and photos on its own server so that users can’t accidentally delete them. InTouchLink also sells licenses for multiple users in retirement communities.
Canadian computer guys Raul Rupsingh and Stephen Beath volunteered at senior centers and tested their simple five-button interface with genuine grandmas. Now, their web-based subscription software is used in many Canadian retirement and nursing-home chains. The home version costs $8 per month or $149 for a year of access, support, and upgrades. It is available in eight languages, including Hindi and simplified or traditional Chinese. PointerWare works on Windows-based PCs and tablets. It is not compatible with Apple products.
Mobile Phones and Apps
In spite of the fact that my mother threw hers in the trash, a mobile phone can be a lifeline for seniors, enabling them to make calls in an emergency. They can also communicate by SMS. (Librarian Caroline Bordinaro writes, “My mom has gotten into texting with her phone. She understands it better than Facebook.”) And, a caregiver can slip a GPS-enabled cellphone into the pocket of a senior with a tendency to wander. Track the phone, find the person.
Here are two cellphones designed specifically for people with deficits in hearing, dexterity, and/or sight.
GreatCall sells the Jitterbug J big-buttoned cellphone for about $120. Rate plans range from about $15 to $80 per month (after a $35 setup fee) with additional fees for features such as text messaging, medication reminders, and 5Star Urgent Response, a service that provides enhanced GPS locator service and an operator to respond to distress calls. Jitterbug features a backlit keypad; loud, clear speakers; and a bright screen with large numbers. College speech teacher Julia McDermott says, “My mom loves her Jitterbug phone.”
This European company has developed a simple mobile phone designed to be used by folks with hearing, sight, and dexterity issues. It features a large display and buttons, a keypad that announces pressed keys in English or Spanish, hearing-aid-compatible amplified sound, and an emergency SOS button on the back that can be set to text and then sequentially call five preset numbers. The Just5 phone operates on the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) standard; that is, it uses a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card to store the phone’s information. In the U.S., mobile service is provided via a prepaid plan with T-Mobile or through a user’s existing plan through T-Mobile or AT&T. The phone also has a built-in flashlight and an FM radio. Say, my mom might not have thrown this model away!
5Star Urgent Response
This program is not just for Jitterbugs. For $14.99 per month, subscribe to this emergency app for the iPhone. Users can touch the app button or use the “Shake for Help” function to reach a customer service agent any time. 5Star can store a user’s personal profile with medical condition and medication information and can share this data in a conference call with 911 services. Agents can also use GPS to track a user who might have a tendency to get lost.
Find My iPhone
This app comes built-in on all iPhones. After setup, a user can log into a webpage map to locate his or her iPhone and the person carrying it.
The free version of this app for Android and iPhones features periodic GPS tracking for family members who have enabled the service on their smartphones. For $4.99 per month, the service will continually monitor the location of family phones and display their location on a web-based map.
Shop for Silver Technology
Where can you buy devices and software designed to overcome the deficits that often accompany advanced age? Here are several suggestions.
This Virginia-based retailer specializes in researching and marketing tech products for older users. It pioneered the Jitterbug, the large-buttoned simple cellphone designed for seniors. It distributes lights, magnifiers, and low-cost hearing aids, along with the WOW! computer.
This store sells assistive technology for all ages including magnifiers, large print keyboards, and amplified, large-button phones. Enablemart sells both the Telikin and HP SeniorPCs.
EVAS: Electronic Vision Access Solutions
Rhode Islanders Gerald and Catherine Swerdlick sell general assistive technologies such as screen readers and Braille printers. They also individually configure Dell computers to assure accessibility to customers with visual, hearing, physical, or learning disabilities.
Clarity, a division of Plantronics, is a leading provider of communications solutions for seniors. Buy hearing-aid compatible telephones here.
Other Technology That Seniors Love
Of course, some older people are plenty tech-savvy and don’t suffer from cognitive difficulties. Librarian Phyllis Wilburn says that her husband’s 84-year-old dad “loves his computer: email, pictures of great-grandchildren, watching NASA website for space walks, baseball scores, etc.” Indeed, there are well-designed machines and apps designed for the general user that seniors find particularly useful.
The Kindle, which ranges in price from about $80 to $380, seems to be the most successful of the e-readers. The chief benefit for older eyes is that it can display large text without the bulk and heft of a print book. “I misplaced my reading glasses and could increase the print size so I could read,” confesses Janell Jorda, Glen Ivy Day Spa community outreach coordinator. “Of course, there were only 2 words to a page ...”
Apple’s tablet is easy to use and the screen text can be enlarged with the spread of two fingers. “My 76-year-old Mom got an iPad, initially to use as a reader,” writes college buddy Laurie Howlett. “But she and her husband fought over who got to use it so they bought another!” Professional organizer Tracy McCubbin also says that many of her older clients “have loaded up the Kindle app on it for easy reading.” They also use the iPad for email.
All of the elegant, intuitive Apple products seem to be popular with tech-savvy older folks. McCubbin’s 83-year-old client had her load an iPod nano with meditations that she listens to at night to go to sleep. Writer Kathy Talley-Jones notes, “My father likes to listen to books on his iPod touch and gets every new iPod Shuffle, nano, etc., when it is released!”
The video phone of the future has arrived and it’s free. What a blessing for seniors who are separated from their families. “My 91-year-old grandmother in Tokyo uses Skype to keep in touch with my mother in Los Angeles,” writes special librarian Takako Nagumo. But Skype has practical implications beyond family cohesion.
“My 95-year-old grandfather is lucky enough to have found doctors who will make house calls,” Nagumo adds, “but my grandmother is always concerned that she may not understand all of the doctor’s instructions, so when the doctor comes, she and my mother both log on to Skype, so my mother can take notes and confer with the doctor, too.” Install Skype on any web-enabled device that is equipped with a camera and a microphone, including smartphones.
Good Design for Seniors Equals Good Design?
In his book What the Dog Saw (2009, ISBN: 0316075841), Malcolm Gladwell praises the pitchman Ron Popeil who designs products such as the Ronco Veg-O-Matic that are easy to use and, more importantly, to understand. He writes that if Popeil had introduced the VCR, it wouldn’t be a black box with a blinking clock. Instead, the tape would be visible, “so that if it was recording you could see the spools turn.”
“Each step of the taping process would be identified with a big, obvious numeral so that you could set it and forget it.” It would be colorful and sit on top of the television so that it could be easily seen and accessed.
The iPad, Kindle, and Skype offer that kind of transparency. If only all technology could be so elegant and easy, it could be mastered by people of all ages.