I have seen the future of technology. If I hold it at arm’s length and squint, that is, I can just barely make it out.
My old eyes are not what they used to be. And if I’m having trouble deciphering obscure icons on a 4-inch screen, imagine how my parents’ generation feels.There are tens of millions of elder Americans who are not well served by today’s technology.
Andrew Parker, director of communications for ITOK.net, which provides technical support services for seniors, agrees that today’s technology is often not designed with older users in mind (The average age of an ITOK.net subscriber is 63). To truly be elder friendly, devices need to be easy to read, simple to use, and come with generous help options, says Parker. Almost no tech company today is doing a good job at all three of these things.
That’s a shame, because technology can help our older generations live more active and independent lives — well into their 90s. And there are new products aimed at their needs. I’ve seen a number made specifically for the booming market of aging boomers, which now represent more than a third of the US population.
But just because a company says a product is made for older users, it doesn’t mean it succeeds at it. I recently looked at a tablet and a smart watch designed for those with more than a touch of gray. One of them turns out to be fairly well designed for elder users; the other, not so much.
AARP RealPad: Not real enough
Last fall, the AARP announced the first tablet aimed specifically at older customers. The $189 RealPad is a 7.8-inch Android slate with 16GB of memory and a handful of elder-friendly features — like extra large icons, and a button bar that provides easy access to video tutorials, troubleshooting tools, and 24/7 phone support. It also comes with a year’s free membership to AARP.
Unfortunately, the RealPad uses generic tablet hardware, which means seniors will probably find the power and volume buttons hard to see, and the slippery aluminum case hard to grip. Setup is also challenging – you’ll have to wade through standard Android screens featuring unfamiliar acronyms, captchas, and teensy type. If this is a gift, you’ll definitely want to set this up for your parents before you hand it over.
Once it’s set up, the RealPad offers brief video tutorials on topics like “Touchscreen Basics” and “How Do I Use the Internet?” The problem: You kind of have to know how to use a tablet before you can get to the tutorials telling you how to use a tablet. If already you know that much, you might find the tutorials condescending.
The volume on these videos is also strangely low, even at the maximum setting. (Other videos play at normal volume.) If your parents are hard of hearing, they probably won’t get much out of them.
The good news is that the RealPad comes with free 24/7 phone support, as well as a pretty slick RealQuickFix app that repairs most common problems. I called the support line a couple of times; each call was answered promptly by a polite technician who was a native speaker of English. I wouldn’t call the support stellar – for example, instead of toubleshooting the volume problem they suggested an in-warranty replacement – but it was acceptable.
If you’re tired of being the tech support department for your aging parents, you might consider the RealPad. Otherwise, they’d probably do just as well with the $179 Amazon Fire HDX, which comes with a “Mayday” button that offers access to live video help at any hour of the day.
A Lively antidote to aging
Last spring, I installed a Live!y home monitoring system in my 86-year-old mother in law’s apartment. This system uses Bluetooth sensors that communicate with a cellular hub; I plugged the hub into a wall socket, then placed sensors on her pillbox, keyfob, refrigerator, and bedroom door. I got reports telling me when she took her medicine, left the house, took a nap, or opened the fridge. It was a breeze to set up and managed to strike the right balance between respecting her privacy and providing useful information about her activities.
Earlier this year, Live!y added a simple smartwatch to its monitoring system that acts as a panic button in case your parent needs help. It also includes a basic step counter and medication reminder. It’s a nicely designed piece of hardware, with an attractive face (available in black or gray, digital or analog), a waterproof case, and a rubberized wrist strap that’s easy to get on and off.
When your parent presses the big orange button on the side of the watch, she gets a phone call from Live!y asking if she’s al lright. If she says she needs help, or she doesn’t answer, Live!y will call her emergency contacts or immediately summon 911 services to her location, depending on which option you choose.
In my limited testing the watch worked pretty well. Calls arrived within two minutes of pressing the button. Lively’s iOS or Android app let you see how many steps its wearer has taken each day, when she’s left the house, and whether the sensors have moved. (An update coming in a few weeks will allow you to view 14 days of activity.) But that’s about it – there’s no monitoring of sleep or other vitals.
Right now the watch needs to be within 1500 feet of the hub in order to issue an alert. Starting next month, you’ll be able to pair the watch to an Android phone, so elders can issue alerts from anywhere. (Support for iOS will come in the third quarter.)
Later this year, seniors will be able to remove the watchface from the band and wear it on a magnetized clip somewhere on their torso, says Live!y co-founder David Glickman. That’s when the watch turns into an “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” warning system, using its internal accelerometer to detect a sudden drop and issue an alert.
Live!y is pretty slick, and at $50 for the kit (plus $28 to $35 a month) it’s more affordable than many elder monitoring systems. But unless your aging parent is a complete shut in – or totally smartphone phobic – I’d wait for the version that connects to a phone, so your parents can summon help from anywhere.
Age before beauty
I believe the tech revolution will eventually embrace older Americans, for two reasons: There are a lot of them, and they have money to spend. Boomers already account for a third of all mobile technology purchases and 40 percent of all online sales, according to data collected by AARP Media Sales. As our population both grows older and people live longer, those numbers will only increase.
Just don’t be fooled by labels. It takes a lot more than making the icons bigger or bolting on a few tutorials to make a device senior friendly. It needs to be designed from the ground up with elders in mind. With any luck, some day that user will be you.