A few days before my 100-year-old mother’s death this summer, she said she had only one regret: not being able to see her family in California again.
But then I realized that I had my MacBook (with its built-in webcam) in my briefcase. A few phone calls later and my mother was using iChat to speak with and see her great-grandchildren for the first time in years.
My mother, born in a Belarussian village before the advent of commercial radio, was by her late 90s using a cellphone, receiving e-mail messages from her family and asking me “what is this Twitter thing anyway?”
She was far from the only centenarian using technology for more than just medical monitoring and protection against falls. Contrary to stereotypes, computers, social networks, e-mail and even video games are becoming essential parts of older peoples’ lives.
Some of the highest growth rates in broadband use are happening among the elderly. The Pew Research Center found that broadband use for those 65 and older increased from 19 percent in May 2008 to 30 percent in April 2009. Since 2005, broadband use has tripled in that group.
Although challenges remain for many older people, any number of products can help them become more involved in the digital age. Here’s a look at some of the most popular ones.
IT ALL STARTS WITH A PC. While many digital devices like cameras or cellphones don’t require a PC, their use can be enhanced with a computer by helping users transmit photos or easily update a mobile phone address book.
For those concerned that Microsoft’s Windows interface is too daunting for elders, Big Screen Live (bigscreenlive.com) simplifies the standard interface, making it easier to send e-mail messages, surf the Web, share photos, shop online or play games. Changes like fewer buttons, color-coded commands and larger type ease the Windows experience.
While the company does not make a similar product for the Mac, older users who have sight and hearing problems can adjust a Mac’s on-screen appearance using the Universal Access pane found in the System Preferences folder. Screen background color, audio alerts and keyboard behavior are some of the features that can be adjusted. More information, including a video demonstration of accessibility settings, can be found at apple.com/accessibility.
SMILE FOR GRANDMA! Video chatting has become a popular way to ease the isolation experienced by many older people with limited mobility. Free programs like Skype and iChat, and the built-in webcams on many computers, make it easy to do.
For Mac users familiar with Terminal commands, the iChat program can be set up to accept all incoming video requests, making video chatting effortless for tech-challenged elders.
In addition to online chats, Internet-connected digital picture frames from companies like Ceiva, D-Link and Kodak allow friends and family to continually send new images, helping older or less mobile people keep up with events.
YOU NEVER CALL! Several cellphone providers offer special models for older people, with louder audio and simplified keypads. Jitterbug (jitterbug.com) specifically markets itself to those with declining physical capabilities.
The company offers a cellphone with large, easy-to-read buttons and displays and also allows customers to have an operator dial the calls for them. The operator can add addresses to a person’s contact list and, for additional fees, customers can have 24-hour voice access to a nurse or roadside assistance.
Plans start at $15 a month for 50 minutes’ use for those who want a phone for emergencies. The Jitterbug phone costs $147 and is available without a contract.
YOU NEVER WRITE! For those who mainly use a computer for e-mail, PawPawMail (pawpawmail.com) takes the complexity out of the process. For $5 a month, users transmit and receive mail through PawPawMail’s Web site, which features simple graphics, large type and real names rather than potentially confusing e-mail addresses. The account manager, typically a younger family member, sets up the account, creating a list of approved e-mail senders; spammers and phishers cannot get through.
If operating a computer, even one with a simplified interface, is a nonstarter, it’s still possible to be part of the e-mail world. Presto (presto.com) offers a specially designed $50 Hewlett-Packard printer configured to automatically dial in to its servers and download e-mail messages several times a day.
For $12.50 a month (if prepaid yearly), the owner automatically receives, but cannot send, e-mail messages according to a schedule set by the user or account manager. To contact a user, the sender must be placed on an approved list, as with PawPawMail.
Messages can include photos and PDFs. E-mail messages can be formatted as plain text in a variety of type faces and sizes, or as greeting cards. Presto also offers a range of downloaded messages, including Andy Rooney essays, puzzles, travel information, celebrity news and other topics.
A hand-held device called Peek (www.getpeek.com) makes sending and receiving e-mail messages easy. Peek, which looks a bit like a BlackBerry, charges $19.95 a month for unlimited e-mail and text messaging, considerably less than plans from cellphone providers to do the same tasks.
The $50 Peek Pronto allows users to view attached Word, JPEG and PDF files, and receive news and weather headlines. It works with most standard e-mail providers like AOL, AT&T, Google, Yahoo and Verizon. There is no monthly contract, so potential users can try the service and make sure they are comfortable with the small keyboard.
While imagining your elderly uncle using high-tech devices to keep in touch might at first seem far-fetched, it’s only a matter of time before it is second nature. Just remember: today’s Web jockeys are tomorrow’s grandparents.
By ERIC A. TAUB, New York Times