As she races toward her 90th birthday, my mother is as fascinated by digital technology as she’s ever been, which is to say she couldn’t care less. PCs, tablets, smartphones, whatever — she’s not interested. Maybe I need better bait.
Of course, plenty of old folks are online — 59 percent of Americans 65 and older, according to a survey released in April by the Pew Research Center. Even so, more than three-quarters of seniors need help with setting up and running smartphones or tablets. So there should be lots of demand for hardware and software to simplify the process.
Some companies are attacking the problem with senior-friendly software. One of the most appealing is Tapestry, a free service for online communication between friends and family members of any age.
Tapestry works inside a PC’s web browser or through apps for Apple Inc.’s iOS phones and tablets, or devices running Google Inc.’s Android software. A new user sets up “families” of people that matter to him — golfing buddies, co-workers, or actual family members. Punch in their e-mails and they each receive invitations to join your Tapestry family. Now you can send personal messages, post group notifications, or show photographs to the family members. You can have multiple families, so your more conservative friends needn’t see that message about the latest Nicki Minaj album.
Tapestry is basically Facebook for people with real friends. And its user interface, made up of large typefaces and giant icons, is well-suited to older users with limited eyesight and muscle control.
AARP, the giant organization for Americans 50 and up, offers its own selection of Android and iOS apps for seniors. But now they’ve come up with the RealPad, a $189 Android tablet tailored especially for older users.
Maybe I’m not old enough to appreciate it. The AARP RealPad is underpowered, overpriced, and saddled with an awful video screen. An AARP spokeswoman conceded these flaws, but she said I was missing the point. The RealPad’s true value lies in an extra menu full of large, easy-to-read icons, guiding the user to senior-oriented features and services. There’s useful stuff there, but you could find most of it almost as easily with a Google search.
But one of the offerings is a set of how-to tutorials — how to connect the Internet, set up an e-mail account, download a new app. The videos are wordy, slow-paced, and dull, but the old ladies in my church would love them. They’re perfect for the 77 percenters, the seniors who would like to log on but aren’t quite sure how.
I just wish AARP had installed these tutorials on a better tablet. These days, $189 should buy you more than a slow dual-core processor and a dreadful, grainy-looking video screen. After all, Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire HDX features a high-definition screen that’s a little smaller but far sharper, and a fast quad-core processor, at a slightly lower price — $179. And while the RealPad offers 24-hour tech support, the HDX goes it one better with Mayday. This excellent feature sets up a free video conference between the user and a support technician, so you can talk face-to-face. Older users with a modicum of skill should shop elsewhere, but the RealPad’s first-rate tutorials might endear it to absolute beginners.
The costliest, cleverest senior tablet I’ve seen comes out of Canada sheathed in bamboo. The Companion by Claris Healthcare Inc. is a Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 Android tablet sealed in a wooden case and powered by a radically redesigned software suite. Forget the familiar on-screen icons — they’re all gone.
The Companion is configured entirely by remote control, through a personal computer’s web browser. There, the owner’s caregiver sets up the tablet to perform specific tasks — reading and sending e-mails, visiting favorite websites, riffling through photos on its excellent high-def screen. You can even set up a “check-in” function so the user can instantly tell relatives he or she is OK.
All functions appear as large round icons on the tablet screen. Want to read the news on the CNN website? Tap the Websites icon, then CNN. Forget about going to a different site; you can only visit the ones that have been pre-approved. No chance of getting lost.
Priced at a hefty $549 plus a monthly subscription fee of $29 per month, the Companion is for users with physical or cognitive limitations that prevent the use of standard tablets. It’s also meant for people who just don’t want to be bothered learning about computers. Perhaps I should try it out on my mother.