March 01, 2015

Embrace Your Inner Geek: Tech 101 for Seniors

Ashley Hallene

Forget learning how to program the VCR—today’s senior has a vast buffet of technology to choose from, learn about, and embrace. Technology has undergone extensive evolution over the lifetime of older adults. The tech-savvy senior will find that technology improves his or her social connections, quality of life, health, and safety.

UnitedHealthcare, in its annual 100@100 Survey, surveyed 104 U.S. residents who were at least 100 years old or would turn 100 in 2014, along with 302 65-year-old baby boomers. The aim was to determine how the attitudes and lifestyles of Americans entering their retirement years compare to those who turned 100 years of age 35 years ago. See Penn Schoen Berland, UnitedHealthcare 100@100 Survey (March 2014), available at http://www.unitedhealthgroup.com/~/media/UHG/PDF/2014/UNH-UHC-100at100-Survey2014.ashx. Key findings included the following.

  1. For centenarians, staying close to friends and family was considered most important to healthy aging.
  2. For baby boomers, maintaining a sense of independence and a sense of humor were most important to healthy aging.
  3. Top daily activities included watching television, talking with family members, laughing, and healthy eating for both age groups. Centenarians were more likely to get a full night’s sleep, while baby boomers were more likely to exercise.

There is a lot of technology out there that can help with healthy aging, as well as improve participation in those common daily activities.

A 2014 Pew report by Aaron Smith, Older Adults and Technology Use, available at http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/04/03/older-adults-and-technology-use, revealed some interesting findings.

  • Unsurprisingly, the number of older adults owning smartphones is smaller than the number of younger people owning smartphones.
  • Surprisingly, among older adults, tablets and e-book readers are more popular than smartphones. This contradicts the general public’s understanding, which is that smartphones are much more common than either tablet computers or e-book readers. The proportion of older adults who own either a tablet or an e-book reader is actually larger than the proportion owning a smartphone. Some 27 percent of seniors own a tablet, an e-book reader, or both, while 18 percent own a smartphone.

The benefits of embracing technology far outweigh the risks, and this article will highlight some of the technologies that the author feels are worth embracing.

Smartphones

As the Pew report revealed, the incidence of smartphone use among older adults is lower than it is in younger generations. But you do not really need a study to tell you this. Why is smartphone use less common among older people? One reason might be that some seniors believe their fingers will not work well with the tiny buttons of the BlackBerry era or on virtual (or “touch”) screens, but most who try it will find the virtual keyboard on a smartphone is easier to use and requires less dexterity than a computer mouse and keyboard.

For that reason, I recommend that you look at the iPhone 6 Plus (starting at $299, http://store.apple.com.) This iteration of Apple’s iPhone comes with a 5.5-inch Retina HD display, which is one-third larger than those of previous generations. This offers more space for larger fonts and can make tapping on apps and keyboards even easier. Turn the phone sideways into the landscape view to really takes advantage of the phone’s larger display by viewing apps like Mail, Calendar, and Stocks (not to mention the home screen) on a wider screen (rather than the traditional view.) As an added bonus, the iPhone 6 Plus packs an impressive eight-megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilization to take better pictures while you are on the move.

If 5.5-inches is not enough to entice you, check out the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (currently at $825.99 or $299.99 with a two-year contract, http://www.bestbuy.com), which packs a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diodes) display. It also comes with a handy stylus to allow you to jot down notes on your phone as though it were a notepad. If you like taking pictures, this phone’s 16-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization is sure to get the job done. It runs on Android, meaning that you can take advantage of handy apps in the Google Play store, including Photo Phone Dialer, an app that allows you to load contacts into a photo database and dial them simply by tapping their picture.

Tablets

While smartphones will make reading and communicating on-the-go easier, for prolonged reading you should consider a tablet, a lightweight handheld device generally good for Web surfing, chatting, interacting via social media, or using Skype. You can think of a tablet as a smartphone on steroids or as a light version of a computer—whichever is your preference. Many seniors worry that eyesight and hearing difficulties will limit their ability to enjoy the full utility of these devices, but there are plenty of tablets with wider screens and zoom features to assist poor eyesight or Bluetooth connectivity to provide better sound.

One of the best tablets out there for seniors is the iPad Air 2 (starting at $499, http://store.apple.com). Weighing in at a lithe 0.96 pounds, the iPad Air 2 is easy to hold. At 6.1 millimeters thin, it is less than half the thickness of the original iPad. The screen features an antireflective coating that reduces glare by over 50 percent. The Retina display was fused from three layers into one, resulting in more vivid colors and greater contrast.

There is also a cool benefit of owning both an iPad and an iPhone. It started with the release of Apple’s iOS 8 (the operating system behind both the iPhone and the iPad). Called “Continuity,” it allows your iPad to ring when your iPhone does, alerting you to a call before you miss it. For this to work, both the iPhone and the iPad need to be powered on and running iOS 8 and connected via the same Wi-Fi signal. Continuity also works on a Mac computer. When Continuity is enabled, you can send text messages from your iPad or Mac computer.

If you are not a fan of the touch keyboard, there are a lot of iPad keyboard options for you to consider. Check out the Zagg Slim Book, ultra-slim iPad keyboard and detachable case ($129.99, http://www.zagg.com). This allows your keyboard to act as a cover, protecting the iPad’s screen when it is not in use. It comes with a hinge that offers a 135-degree viewing angle, allowing your iPad to function much like a laptop.

What to Do with Smartphones and Tablets: Virtually Anything

While smartphones and tablets look great, you may be wondering what it is you are supposed to do with them. The answer is—virtually anything. There are almost no limits to what you can do. It is all driven by your interests. Another interesting finding in the Pew report is that 27 percent of older adults use social networking sites such as Facebook, and these users socialize more frequently with others when compared with those who do not use social networking sites. Today 46 percent of online seniors (representing 27 percent of the total older adult population) use Facebook and other social networking sites, and these social network adopters have more persistent social connections with the people they care about. Some 81 percent of older adults who use social networking sites say that they socialize with others (either in person, online, or over the telephone) on a daily or near-daily basis. Among older adults who go online but do not use social networking sites, that figure is 71 percent; and for those who are not online at all, it is 63 percent.

Want to stay in touch with family and old friends? You can access social media on either type of device. Social media is a remarkable tool for keeping in touch with children, grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren. Seniors are also using social media to find their college roommates, best friends from their hometown, and even elementary school crushes. The social networks enable us to view videos, read blog posts, share pictures, and have conversations with people who we thought we’d never see again. Social media has broken down barriers, making it easier than ever to connect with people. Lost relatives are found, family reunions and holiday gatherings are planned, and good news spreads faster than ever. Facebook, for example, is a great tool for connecting with friends, capturing and sharing photos, and staying in touch with the people you care about. A study presented at the International Neuropsychological Society Annual Meeting in 2013 indicated that older adults, after learning to use Facebook, performed 25 percent better on memory tasks. As of 2014, nearly one in three seniors were taking advantage of this medium for socialization.

The Good Old Television Enters the Digital Age

One of the most common daily activities is watching TV. Whether for news, cooking tips, travel guides, or entertainment, a television is without a doubt a handy piece of technology to own. You probably already have a TV, but when you are ready to upgrade, some features you should look for include crisp sound, low gloss, (relatively) light-weight structure, simple setups, and minimal upkeep. Sony TVs are known for minimal excess reflection, low gloss, and crisp sound. The Sony Bravia L-Series KDL-32L5000 32-Inch 720p LCD HDTV ($279.99, http://www.amazon.com) is a nice option. The TV comes with large buttons on the side and a simple remote control and includes four easily accessible inputs in the back. It weighs in at 25 pounds, which is pretty light weight if you need to move it.

When it comes to what to watch on TV, in this digital age, you have a lot more options now than the one provided in a basic cable package. If you like both TV and movies, take look at the relatively inexpensive “set-top” device called a Roku 3 ($99.99, http://www.roku.com.) Roku allows you to stream videos to your TV from sites like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, along with radio stations (Pandora, 1.FM, Amazon Cloud Player), news stations (CBS, CNBC, Fox), and games you can play with your Roku remote. There are other options for streaming entertainment to your TV (Google’s Chromecast, Apple TV), but the Roku is arguably the most senior-friendly of the devices. You will need a high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) cable, wireless Internet, and a TV with HDMI ports.

Digital Fitness Trackers

If you like staying fit and getting daily exercise, you should check out some of the fitness trackers available today. Two of the most popular include the Fitbit and Jawbone. These fitness trackers are a fun and easy way to track your personal health metrics. If you are competitive, they are a great way to measure your success and challenge yourself. The Fitbit Charge ($129.99, http://www.fitbit.com) functions like a watch that can also display your daily stats, allowing you to track steps, distance, calories burned, floors climbed, and active minutes. It will even act as a caller ID with over 120 mobile devices (check out the Fitbit website to verify which ones it will sync with). The Fitbit Charge will automatically track your sleep at night. You can even set it for a silent alarm. It will vibrate on your wrist at the designated time, allowing you to wake up more peacefully and your loved one to continue sleeping undisturbed.

Jawbone UP24 ($99.99, http://www.jawbone.com) is a stylish band with some nice fitness features. This fitness tracker counts steps, sleep, and calories. It also offers a vibrating “idle alert” to notify you when you have been sitting too long, this being a gentle way to motivate yourself to move more. It lacks a screen to check your progress, which means you will have to access the website or the app to verify your activity. This is a brand to watch, though. In 2013, Jawbone acquired BodyMedia, arguably one of the best fitness trackers on the market. This means Jawbone now owns its technology. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Jawbone has used that technology to date. While BodyMedia used some of the best tracking technology, its aesthetics and functionality were lacking. That is why a merger between the two seems a match made in heaven. If Jawbone incorporates BodyMedia’s technology into its stylish design, the result will be a force to be reckoned with. In the meantime, the UP24 is a good option that syncs with both Apple and Android phones.

Conclusion

The technology you choose depends on your lifestyle and what is important to you. Once you understand that, look for the options that best fit. When you are starting to use it, do not be afraid to ask questions of the people you see using the technology. Read the manual. Ask the store associate while you are there picking it up. You can also Google how to use something or look for how-to videos on Google. In the end, you should give technology the opportunity to improve your daily life.

Ashley Hallene

Ashley Hallene is a petroleum landman at Alta Mesa Holdings, LP. She practices oil and gas law, title examination, due diligence, acquisitions, and oil and gas leasing in Houston, Texas. She has published articles on legal technology in GPSolo magazine, GPSolo eReport, TYL, and the TechnoLawyer.