Virtual Connections to the "Tech-Challenged"

Written By: Richard Caro.  Last Updated: August 17, 2020.

 

video calls seniors

Photo credit:  Pavan Trikutam

 

How do you have rich and engaging interactions with your parent who you can't visit in person? Especially if they cannot, or will not, adopt mainstream consumer technologies.

That's the challenge we are exploring in this article.

 

After months of enforced isolation during COVID, video calling as a solution for staying in touch with friends and family is firmly entrenched as a valuable tool in many people's lives. And our experience has been that many, many older adults who were previously unfamiliar with video call technology are adapting to this new reality and mastering technology like Facetime and Zoom.

 

However, some people are unable or unwilling to use conventional video calling techniques — and need something simpler.

 

Our community is exploring what those simpler options might be, and this article is the first step in identifying them.

This work is especially relevant for family members of the large population of the elderly who find themselves isolated, and locked away in senior living facilities as a result of COVID.

 

Overview of this Article

This article is for people trying to solve the challenge of communicating from afar with older adults who are "technologically challenged". Sometimes those older adults also suffer from some degree of cognitive impairment.

 

The Solution to Communicating with the "Tech-Challenged" from Afar

Summary: While there are a variety of approaches to having meaningful interactions with an older adult you can't visit in person, and who is not able to use tools like Facetime or Zoom, the solutions have common elements.

Unless you want to rely solely on something like the telephone, the idea is to leverage modern communication modalities — like video calls, messaging, and photo sharing — without requiring the older adult to "do anything complex", or "set anything up".

Typically, these solutions involve some type of screen; internal software that makes things like video calls and messaging easy; and a way to set up and manage the "system" from a distance.

This article is about the different approaches to solving this challenge; the things to think about in selecting the right solution for you; and an overview of some of the promising products our community is exploring. We have not done a deep dive, hands-on, comparative evaluation of the individual products. We may do that in the future if there is sufficient interest. 

 

For Those Who are NOT "Tech-Challenged"

For many people, we are finding that conventional video calling techniques do in fact work extremely well, and we summarized our recommendations for the tools to use in Best Video Calling Technology. For the type of people who can't adapt to these tools, read on for the solutions we are exploring.

 

Table of Contents

Here are the sections we cover.

  • The Criteria (ie the things that matter in selecting the right product);
  • The Product Categories;
  • Tradeoffs to Consider;
  • Specific Products that Seem Promising.

For the specific products we mention, links go to our database of "Useful Products & Resources", where you can find more about the product, discussions or reviews (if any) by our community, and links to each vendor's website (or Amazon) — so you can find the product if you wish.

 

 

The Criteria for the "Technologically Challenged"

Here is a checklist of the criteria for a "communication tool" for the tech-challenged or cognitively impaired.

 

The Fundamental Criteria

  1. The "tech-challenged older adult" should not need to do any setting up of the device. It needs to arrive in their room ready to go. Maybe it can first go to their child's house and be set up by the child, or maybe it is so simple it can just be plugged in and then set up remotely.
     
  2. In many situations, connecting to WiFi is an obstacle. So, in those cases it should work via its own built-in cellular connection.
     
  3. The interface needs to be very simple and not confusing.
     
  4. It should not be dependent on the kindness of the staff in the facility to operate it for the older adult.
     
  5. When it stops working, there needs to be a way to troubleshoot it and fix it — either by some resident tech person or remotely.
     
  6. The "benchmark" is the old fashioned telephone. The new "communication tool" needs in some way to make communication better and richer, or easier, or more frequent.

 

Criteria that Matter in Some Situations

  1. Is it "mobile"? If the older adult lives in a small space, then perhaps it is fine if it sits in one location and is not easily moved around. If they live in a larger space, maybe it would be desirable if they could move it around? Or you could move it around for them?
     
  2. Power: If it has a battery, how it will be recharged, and by whom, is a critical question.
     
  3. Video calling works best when the older adult is in the field of view of the camera. Ideally, the product design makes that easy to accomplish.
     
  4. It should not be intimidating or threatening.
     
  5. There are some situations in which being able to initiate a call from afar and "drop in" — without the call recipient needing to "accept" the call — is a desirable feature.
     
  6. But there are also situations where this "Drop in" capability is perceived as an invasion of privacy. There needs to be a way to involve both the older adult and the family in a decision about whether or not to enable that feature, and the privilege that allows someone to "Drop In" needs to be tightly controlled and available only to certain people.
     
  7. Voice activation can be very desirable in some situations. We really like the idea of being able to say "Assistant. Call Susan". However, this frequently means that the device needs to be "always listening", and some people worry about security and privacy concerns relating to that capability.
     
  8. Some companies have a business model that involves offering free or low cost products and monetizing your data, or relying on advertising embedded into the product as a way to make money. Some people find that an acceptable tradeoff, but others do not. It should be very clear how the company makes money from the product and what happens to your data, and the data of the older adult using the product. Especially in situations where the product needs to use the older adult's phone number or email to function, the last thing you would want is to have that phone number or email passed on to third parties. And whether you want a company to be able to insert targeted ads into the device is rather debatable when it is your parent's sole lifeline to the outside world.
     
  9. Can it be easily hacked? It is probably correct to say "everything can be hacked". But products vary in how much attention they pay to preventing hacking.

 

Some "Nice to have" Options?

  1. It might be nice if the product can also include other functionality beyond being a communication tool. For example, perhaps it lets the older adult watch movies. Or the news. Or send emails. BUT, extra complexity typically means "harder to use".
     
  2. The older adult whom this is for probably already has television. Would it be good if the new connectivity functionality happened via the TV? Maybe, if it was still "easy to use". But there is a lot to be said for the simple, single purpose device, when ease of use is a primary concern.

 

The Killer Apps

The lowest common denominator of functionalities for these "communication tools for the tech-challenged" are video calling, and photo sharing.

Other functionalities that are often extremely valuable, but are also often already achievable using other tools, include email, messaging, and of course conventional telephone calls. Some products also incorporate reminders, lifestyle feedback and coaching, and various other "wellness" features.

Many of the Longevity Explorers are especially keen on the idea of a voice interface (interacting with the device by talking to it rather than pressing things).

 

 

The Product Categories

Here is how we think about the different possibilities for products to use for virtual communication with the "tech-challenged", or those with cognitive impairments.

 

Tablets and Smartphones

Consumer products like the iPad or iPhone (or the Android equivalents) definitely have the basic functionality that is needed, and if the older adult in question already uses these products, then it is a small step to help them learn Facetime or Zoom. This article is for situations where the older adult cannot, or will not, use these conventional consumer products.

 

"Senior-focused" Tablets

Some companies have developed specific "senior tablets" and "senior smartphones". These are designed to be especially easy to use. This usually involves the idea that "seniors" need something simpler and dumber, which is a worldview we are unenthusiastic about. However for the segment of society we are focusing on here, it is appropriate.

These products typically incorporate video calling, and maybe photo sharing, and usually messaging and email. They also often include a variety of features that allow remote management, and closed social networks. They may or may not allow access to the broader Internet.

The "senior focused tablets" we have seen that look "promising" include the GrandPad (by far the highest profile of these products), and the Claris Companion.

In both cases, the tablet comes with preconfigured software, and has an interface specifically designed to avoid popups, the need for passwords, and complicated interfaces. There is also a companion "App" that enables family members to send photos, initiate video calls, and do various other things.

From our online research, both products look promising for the use case we are exploring in this article, and we do not have a specific recommendation. If you have one or are considering acquiring one, and have comments, please add them.

 

View these Products in our Listings Database

Find more about the products, as well as links to the vendor websites.

 

"Senior-friendly" Mainstream Consumer Products

Since 2019, special purpose "video communication tools" like the Amazon Echo Show, and the Facebook Portal have emerged as mainstream consumer products. These products satisfy many of the essential criteria for "communication tools for the tech-challenged".

The key issue with the Echo Show is that it does not include remote control and remote setup capability.

There is an ongoing discussion among our Longevity Explorer community about how to use the Amazon Echo Show — and set it up remotely and send it to your friend or parent in the senior living facility. Some people are finding that approach works well (although it is not trivial), while others really want the capability to manage the device remotely after it is installed in their parent's room in the residential facility.

You can see what explorers have to say on this topic, and about these specific products, in the discussions attached to Technology for Sheltering in Place.

In an interesting twist, you can now buy a product, called Soundmind, which consists of an Echo Show with additional Alexa skills added to it (including some type of photo display) that are supposed to make it ideal for use as a "care assistant". The company will set it up for you, including contacts and other settings, and send it to the older adult who needs it. This potentially gets around some of the setup issues. 

We have not tried the Soundmind product, but you can see more about it in our listing database here: Soundmind.

Note that some of our explorers feel that there are significant privacy issues with both the Facebook Portal and the Echo Show.

On the whole, however, we are finding a very broad enthusiasm and adoption of Alexa (and the Amazon Echo Show) among the older adults in our community. So far, we are not seeing enthusiasm among our explorer community for the Facebook Portal at all. Anecdotal evidence suggests this may have more to do with how Facebook is perceived as a company by the demographic we are discussing here, than to specific features of the product. We have not evaluated the Facebook Portal as yet.

 

Learn More about Alexa and the Echo Show:

 

 

Digital Picture Frames

We have found that having a picture frame in the house of an older adult that can be populated by the children of that older adult with various happy snaps and images of "the grandkids" is a very popular capability.

We think the ideal product for "connecting virtually to older adults who are not tech-savvy" would include this digital picture frame functionality, as well as other capabilities.

There are many digital picture frames on the market. But only some of them allow you conveniently to populate them with pictures remotely, and control how those pictures are displayed.

For this article we are ignoring the many "simple digital picture frames" that are available (for example see these simple digital picture frames on Amazon*), as we don't think most of them include the other functionalities that we want. However, if you already have good video calling capability with your parent, these simple digital picture frames might be an interesting additional product to investigate.

There are several products that caught our eye particularly in this category.

Both Loop and ViewClix describe themselves as "Digital Picture Frames" that also allow video calls. And both products have a clear emphasis on being used to enable deeper interactions between older adults and their families.

From our online research, these two products appear quite similar in terms of their feature sets, and we think both are well worth a deeper evaluation.

One big difference between these two products and the "simple digital picture frames", that represent more mainstream consumer products, is the attention to the user interface to be used by the older adult. Another is the inclusion of "simple video calls". We think both these features are very relevant to the challenge we are exploring in this article.

UPDATE July 7, 2020: One of our explorers wrote in and pointed out that ViewClix allows video calls "to" the older adult, but not "from" the older adult. In other words, the older adult cannot initiate the call to their family member. This is a notable difference from all the other products metnioned in this article.

 

View these Products in our Listings Database

Find more about the products, as well as links to the vendor websites.

 

 

TV as a "Platform for Seniors"

There are a number of companies that have explored developing products that are "add on's" to a smart TV that turn it into a "platform for seniors" and usually include a variety of the types of features we discuss in this article.

The key aspect of this approach is the use of a TV as the platform, rather than some special purpose electronic device. Depending on the details, we think of these solutions as being specific examples of either a "Senior Tech Device" that families can deploy, or as "Senior Living Facility Solutions" that facilities need to deploy.

Independa is the most prominent example we are aware of of this type of "Senior Smart TV". Uniper also fits into this category. These two products are very different.

Independa's product offers a quite similar feature set to the "senior tablet" offerings. But it is based on a TV as the user interface, rather than a "tablet". We have not done a detailed feature comparison, and don't have specific recommendations. However, we think a good way to think about the differences between these two categories is as follows.

The "TV paradigm" assumes that the TV is rather the center of the older adult's world, and that many of the person's activities take place near the TV, and that a TV is a "familiar interface". For life situations in which these assumptions are appropriate, this approach seems rather logical.

The "tablet" paradigm involves a much smaller footprint, and a device that is much more portable or moveable around the house, and also a much smaller screen. Many of our Longevity Explorers express the opinion that this seems a more "modern" approach.

Uniper is a completely different concept, and not directly comparable with most of the other products mentioned here. It's primarily a service, and focuses on "connecting" individuals to a "community" of other people. It emphasizes connecting via a TV, but also allows the same connections via a computer or tablet.

Both Uniper and Independa have had a focus on deploying systems into residential communities rather than to individuals at home, but we believe both can work for individuals too.

 

View these Products in our Listings Database

Find more about the products, as well as links to the vendor websites.

 

 

"Senior Tech Devices" (for individuals and families)

There is a whole category of products designed specifically for "seniors", which fit nicely into the sweet spot of products that "virtually connect with the tech-challenged". These include the "senior focused tablets" and "digital picture frames" described above, as well as some additional products that are tightly focused on the needs of frail, tech-challenged, older adults, but don't quite fit into the above categories.

In this category, we include only those products that you can acquire and use, without needing to involve a residential facility (other than perhaps connecting to its WiFi). Further down (in "Senior Living Facility Solutions"), we talk about products that need to be deployed by a specific facility, and which are marketed to the facility, rather than to the older adults or families themselves.

Both Lumin and Livindi are examples of this Senior Tech Devices product category, although they have quite different feature sets from one another. Both are very new in the market.

The Lumin is a very similar concept to the "senior tablets" (eg GrandPad and Claris Companion), but it is based on a different hardware platform which is larger (a 17 inch freestanding screen). Whereas the GrandPad is a US product (also available in the UK, and maybe elsewhere), and the Claris Companion is a Canadian product, available in both the USA and Canada, Lumin is based in Australia and is not yet supported in the USA (as of Q2 2020).

Livindi is also new, and also built around a sort of "senior tablet" concept. But it is marketed as a "Virtual Health Companion", and the website focuses on home health care and senior living facilities and caregivers. And in addition to the tablet, the system can include sensors that are positioned in the home to help "monitor" the older adult.

If the broader capabilities of sensing seem attractive, then Livindi should be compared with other products in the "Caring from Afar" category (see below).

We have not done a hands-on evaluation of either of these products.

 

View these Products in our Listings Database

Find more about the products, as well as links to the vendor websites.

 

 

 

Senior Living Facility "Solutions"

In addition to all of the above, there is a category of "communication" products that have been developed with a focus on deployment inside a senior living facility. These solutions usually include features like the ability to share communications from the facility management (activities, menus, etc). But they often also include some type of video communication capability to connect with family members.

These solutions typically need to be deployed by the management of that facility, so if you are seeking a solution for a person in such a place, the key question is whether or not they have such a system as yet. 

If you are reading this, and are the operator of a facility wanting advice about which system to deploy, feel free to contact us separately for advice.

Several of the products in the sections above have been deployed in a variety of residential facilities (e.g. Independa). Below are some additional products that fit into this category.

 

View these Products in our Listings Database

Find more about the products, as well as links to the vendor websites.

 

 

Robots

One of the problems with products like an Amazon Echo Show is that you (ie the child, living somewhere else) can't have it move around your parent's house, nor can you adjust its field of view to make sure it is looking at the older adult with whom you want to interact.

We have long liked the idea of some type of remotely controllable "robot". At the very least, we want it to be able to be steerable in its view point to ensure the older adult is in its field of view. Ideally, you would also be able to move it around the house (with the permission of the older adult).

As far as using a robot at home is concerned, so far, of the products we have tried, none quite made up in improved functionality for the additional complexity, and they are all expensive. But we are still hopeful for some of the new products under development.

In this category we include Ohmni, and Kubi. We also really liked Beam, but that seems to have vanished from the market.

For the specific application considered in this research (interacting with the tech-challenged), the robots like Ohmni that can move around the house seem rather intrusive for use in your own home. And charging them is a bit of a challenge. And we have found limited interest in having one in the house by the older adults we have worked with.

However, for use in a community setting such as senior living, we think these robots would be excellent solutions right now.

And as they mature, we also see great potential for use in individual homes.

For a product like Kubi (an iPad on top of a steerable mount, that can tilt but not change actual location), the issue is that the iPad needs to be kept up to date. So, it does not really address the issue of simplicity for the device itself. Maybe a Kubi plus a "senior tablet" would be interesting? We have not tried that.

 

View these Products in our Listings Database

Find more about the products, as well as links to the vendor websites.

 

 

Caring from Afar Products

There is a whole family of products designed to "keep an eye on" your parent. The idea is to include things like sensors that track activity, lifestyle reminders, medication management tools, perhaps some Artifical Intelligence that can serve a social function, and various other intriguing ideas. These products are beyond the scope of this piece of content, but some of these products can also function as simple video communication tools.

You can see more about this category of products here.

 

 

Simple "Check In" Products

There is also a category of simple "Check In" Apps. These are designed so that an App gets installed on both the smartphone of the older adult (ie they need a smartphone), and the smartphone of the "child of the older adult". The App enables various regular "check in" capabilities.

There are also some Alexa "skills" that enable various levels of "checking in" on an isolated individual.

These are not our preferred solution for the "tech challenged" older adults we are focusing on here, but you can find some of these products in our Resources listing database.

 

 

Some Tradeoffs to Consider

There are some obvious tradeoffs to consider.

 

Mass Market Products

Some of these products are consumer products designed for a mass audience and made in very high volumes (Echo Show, iPhone, iPad). This means they are developed by companies with very large resources. They are updated frequently and have new versions of the hardware frequently.

There are some good aspects of this. They are likely to be better and better each year. They are likely to get security updates frequently. If there are "problems", the companies have the resources to fix them if they wish.

On the other hand, for some users they may be insufficiently simple. And they may have lots of additional functionality that is not useful for a specific individual, but which adds to the complexity and to the difficulty of keeping the products working.

 

Senior-focused Products

Some of the products discussed in this article are specifically "designed for seniors". Usually this really means they are "designed for the tech-challenged, cognitively challenged, and those with hearing, vision, and movement limitations."

Since not all older adults fit these challenged / impaired criteria, we don't really care for the whole idea of "senior-focused" products. However, for this specific discussion, the target is people who do indeed have tech-challenges and or cognitive challenges, so these products should come in to their own.

There are several things to consider with these "senior focused products".

  • The companies are often quite small, so an important question is whether they have the resources to keep the product up to date and secure.
  • Sometimes they develop their own custom hardware, which is time consuming and expensive. Then you need to think about how quickly the hardware will become outdated, and whether the company can realistically update it quickly enough to stay competitive with the fast moving mass market devices.

 

 

Specific Products That Seem "Promising"

We have not done hands-on testing of this entire category of products, although we have done a lot of evaluationg with the Amazon Echo Show, which we like.

The products mentioned here have appeared on our radar screen, usually because they were mentioned by a member of our Longevity Explorer community in a positive light. If you are reading this and have experience with one of the products, please share what you learned about that product in the comments section further down the page.

At the bottom of the page, you can see the grid of products from our database of "Useful Products & Resources", shared by the Longevity Explorer Community.

For the specific products we mention, links go to our database of "Useful Products & Resources", where you can find more about the product, discussions or reviews (if any) by our community, and links to each vendor's website (or Amazon) — so you can find the product if you wish.

 

 

Inputs from Tech-enhanced Life's Readers

The Tech-enhanced Life community had an online interaction about this general topic. You can read their comments and thoughts at "Staying in Touch: Parents in Lockdown".

 

 

 

 

*Note: If you use the links above to buy yourself one of the products we explore on this page, we (sometimes) get a small percentage of the sale from Amazon / the Manufacturer. We use this to support our research. It does not affect the price you pay.

Beyond this, we have no financial interest in the products discussed here, and this article is not sponsored or supported in any way by any product vendor. See How we Fund our Work.

 

 

Help Support our Research

We hope you found this work useful. If you like what we do, and would like to see it continue, please consider contributing time, ideas, or some funding to help support our work.

We are currently raising contributions from those who find our work valuable to complete some new research initiatives, all targeted at helping older adults live better for longer. And we are always looking for contributions of ideas about what to work on, or help executing some of our projects.

Learn More: Help Support our Research.

 

Reader Comments: "Virtual Connections to the "Tech-Challenged""

 

from AnnieScott Rogers (unverified) at July 06, 2020

I have been using Zoom for meetings, happy hours, and taking classes since the pandemic caused us to shelter in place. Every other Tuesday, I send a link to our residents, and they click on it to join the group, and get to see and talk with other residents on their computer. We have had up to 75 people online at one time (3 pages). Zoom can be used for no cost, or at a nominal membership (which I purchased) for longer sessions with more attendees. The Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) from SF State also has a lot of offering on Zoom, some free, and some more costly, but such a varied selection of classes.
A couple of churches that I like offer services on Facebook, where you can watch and comment, and sing (since you are at home alone).

 

from faengelm (member) at June 27, 2020

Excellent overview with links to further details. 

Discuss, Comment, Ask Questions


 

 

Related Products & Resources in the Tech-enhanced Life Database

Tools for improving the quality of life as we grow older — shared by the Tech-enhanced Life community.

 

Key words: 
virtual connection, tech-challenged, technologically challenged

Last Updated: August 17, 2020.