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Making new tech work in older hands

Learning new technology skills helps lessen isolation, gerontologists say, keeps the brain active with games like Luminosity and allows older people to monitor their own health more closely.
Learning new technology skills helps lessen isolation, gerontologists say, keeps the brain active with games like Luminosity and allows older people to monitor their own health more closely. BLOOMBERG NEWS

As the population ages, older adults across the country are finding more help to navigate the wired world. Senior centers, retirement communities and advocacy groups like AARP are offering more free courses for older adults. And simpler devices and apps, which are better designed for aging hands and eyes, are trickling into the marketplace.

Many older people already use laptops and tablet computers, studies show, but use of newer mobile gadgets like smartphones is lagging among the 60 and older cohort. In part that is because mobile devices typically have smaller screens and complex menus that may be harder to navigate.

“The digital divide is closing but still relevant,” said Terry Bradwell, chief enterprise strategy and innovation officer at AARP. “As long as tech changes, there will always be a divide of some sort.”

But even for those who only partly close the gap, rewards await. Learning new technology skills helps lessen isolation, gerontologists say, keeps the brain active with games like Luminosity and allows older people to monitor their own health more closely.

AARP offers workshops, videos and even online safety tips through its TEK Academy, which stands for Technology, Education and Knowledge. But now the advocacy group wants to go further. It has teamed up with JP Morgan Asset Management to start a $40 million AARP Innovation Fund to spur the invention of senior-friendly digital tools for aging in place, with other health care aids.

“The tide is starting to turn,” Bradwell said.

Tablet computers, which have bigger screens and are often easier to use than smartphones or laptops, are becoming popular devices for people over 75.

That has prompted the creation of the grandPad, a digital tablet with its own private, curated system. With this device, older people tap a photo to make a video call or tap a button to send a voice email. Their relatives download the app to communicate with them.

Scott Lien, grandPad’s chief executive, created the tablet after hearing loss made it difficult for his mother to talk on a standard phone. Navigating Skype was equally frustrating for her, he said.

“This problem was nagging me,” Lien said. “It needed to be solved.” Remembering passwords and installing updates can be equally daunting for older people, so grandPad was designed without them, he said.

Bernadine Winter’s daughter introduced her to a grandPad. Now Winter, 85, has weekly video calls with her children and grandchildren, posts photos and listens to country music. She also plays her favorite games, solitaire and blackjack, on the grandPad.

Winter, who lives in Greenwald, Minn., has an iPhone. But after forgetting her passwords, she could not use most of its features.

“Now I just use it for texting and making calls,” she said.

Many apps were not designed with older adults in mind, either. So they can be hard to read or even download.

By contrast, Pillboxie uses color coding and simple menus to help older people remember to take their medications. EyeReader turns a smartphone into a magnifying glass. And the Silver Surf app was designed for people over 50 to read small print with zoom control.

Bradwell likes the Tile app, which is a tracking device for finding lost keys, wallets and other easily misplaced items.

“There are more apps for geo-locating,” he said.

The key for any device is keeping older adults connected.

The Jitterbug Touch, by GreatCall, is a simple smartphone with a brightly colored screen that makes it easy to make calls, send text messages or email, or get emergency help.

“Being disconnected leads to isolation and depression,” said Colin Milner, chief executive of the International Council on Active Aging. “So there’s a significant incentive to getting people connected.” He cited a World Health Organization study that argued that by 2020, the second-leading cause of death globally would be depression, behind heart disease.

Better digital skills can even improve dating choices. Once older adults are connected to children and grandchildren, the next step is reconnecting to old friends, said Hal Spielman, 88, co-author with Marc Silbert of “Suddenly Solo,” a lifestyle guide for widowed or divorced men.

“The electronic media is a wonderful way to connect,” said Spielman, a widower who interviewed more than 1,600 people to find out how they coped with being single. “You can try out senior dating sites, reconnect with people you knew in the past or join a meetup. It opens up a whole new social world.”

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