Technology

Easy-to-Use Products for the Technophobe

Companies are developing a variety of tech products and services for the 65-and-up crowd.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the December 2009 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.

Not long ago, the tech industry gave little thought to the senior market, a demographic once deemed too set in its ways to adopt the latest gee-whiz gadgetry. As the population ages, many companies are developing a variety of tech products and services for the 65-and-up crowd.

"It's what I would call an emerging market, probably akin in terms of evolution to the Internet in 1999," says Laurie Orlov, an industry analyst who writes "Aging In Place Technology Watch," a blog that covers senior technology. (Read it at www.ageinplacetech.com.) Here are some of our favorites.

Personal Computers for Neophytes

If you've never used a computer, tasks like surfing the Web, opening digital photos and sending e-mail can be difficult. Enter the Designed for Seniors GO Computer. Built by MyGait, this desktop machine is pricier than most home computers: $879, plus a $20 monthly service fee.

But the GO Computer's thoughtful design can benefit seniors who are not accustomed to using computers. A large "GO" button at the top of its screen provides easy access to popular features, including the Internet, e-mail and games. The "Zoom" feature magnifies screen text. The keyboard has large letters with high-contrast graphics to lessen eye strain.

Seniors provide the technical support. When you call for assistance, someone who is 55 and older will help resolve your issue. Jeff Hill, chief executive officer for MyGait, estimates nearly three-fourths of the support calls aren't related to technical problems. "Rather they're users seeking help with Google, or they have questions about using passwords on Web sites," he says.

The $20 monthly fee covers online file storage, protection against viruses, technical support and software updates. You'll have to supply your own Internet access, which costs $20 to $40 a month.

Ray Vigneault of Houston uses the GO Computer at Parkway Place, the senior community where he lives. The PC is "good for going online and communicating with people," says Vigneault, 79. Vigneault teaches a Tuesday afternoon class to show residents how to use the computer, which is located in the community's library. He recommends the machine for seniors who want to go online to read news, check e-mail and research topics on Google. (To order, go to www.thegocomputer.com or call 877-671-5846.)

Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have teamed up to offer the HP SeniorPC, which is a more conventional computer with a higher upfront cost -- $1,075 to $1,165. On the plus side, there's no monthly fee other than Internet access. Available in laptop and desktop models, the SeniorPC includes an HP Deskjet printer and a few senior-oriented tools, including OnTimeRx, a program that reminds users to take their medications. (To order, go to www.enablemart.com and type "SeniorPC" in the search engine, or call 888-640-1999.)

Neither the GO Computer nor the SeniorPC uses a touch screen, which has become popular on handheld devices such as the Apple iPhone. According to Hill, a touch screen on a desktop computer requires the user to extend an arm for long periods of time, which can become uncomfortable. But if a touch screen sounds appealing, consider either an HP TouchSmart PC (www.hp.com/united-states/campaigns/touchsmart; 866-541-3513), which costs $800 and up, or an Asus EeeTop PC (www.asus.com), at $500 and up.

Easy-to-Use Phones

The Jitterbug J (www.jitterbug.com; 866-932-6598) is the latest Samsung no-frills cell phone for seniors. The Jitterbug J has a simple, ergonomic design with large, backlit numbers, a padded ear cushion and an audio volume that is louder than that of most cell phones.

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Jitterbug has added support for text messaging and Bluetooth wireless devices. Bluetooth is a big deal for drivers. An increasing number of states are requiring drivers to use hands-free earpieces while talking on cell phones. The Jitterbug J costs $147 with no contract. That's a bit pricey, but monthly service plans cost as little as $15 for 50 minutes of talk time.

Meanwhile, the Clear Sounds CS1000 Amplified Freedom Phone (www.clearsounds.com; 800-965-9043) is a home phone designed with seniors in mind, particularly those who suffer vision or hearing loss. The large, backlit keypad is easy to read in low light, and it "speaks" the numbers as you dial. Caller ID announces the name and number of the person who is calling you, or you can read this information on the large, lighted display. The phone costs $180.

If you sometimes forget phone numbers, the Freedom Phone's photo dial buttons can help. You insert a small picture of someone you call often under each of the photo buttons, and then enter the person's number. Voila! You can call loved ones simply by pressing the buttons with their photos on them.

Tech That Keeps You Safe

Electronic pillboxes that remind seniors to take their medications are nothing new. But MedSmart adds another layer of safety by phoning, e-mailing or texting a list of contacts if the patient forgets a required dose. The compact device connects to a phone line and notifies one or more people, including the patient, who may have left home and forgotten to take the meds.

For seniors who are home, MedSmart plays audio and visual alerts for 90 minutes. "Patients and the people who care for them, such as caregivers or members of a health-care team, can receive reminders," says Dr. John O'Brien, an assistant professor at the College of Notre Dame School of Pharmacy in Baltimore. MedSmart (www.healthyagingsolutions.com; 800-770-9865) costs $250 upfront and then $35 a month.

There's also a surge of home-monitoring services that help keep seniors out of nursing homes. The Healthsense eNeighbor, for instance, places wireless sensors in the most commonly used parts of the home, including the bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, front door and medicine cabinet. It monitors a senior's daily activities and checks for anomalies, such as if the resident fails to get out of bed in the morning. Potential problems are reported by phone and e-mail to a list of contacts, such as relatives or caregivers. The service leases for $89 per month, plus $150 for installation. (To sign up, go to www.healthsense.com or call 800-576-1779.)

The system has allowed Thomas Smallwood, 73, to move out of a nursing home and into a private apartment in New Courtland Square, a senior housing facility in Philadelphia where each of the 26 units is outfitted with eNeighbor sensors. A retired truck driver, Smallwood says the service was easy to learn.

The eNeighbor system did need a few days to learn Smallwood's daily routine, however. Smallwood enjoys watching TV, particularly cowboy movies, for long stretches. At first, the sensors would detect his inactivity and report a potential problem to New Courtland's staff. "They would be calling my room all the time because I'm not moving," Smallwood says. "And when they find out how I work, they don't bother me."

In addition to monitoring sensors, GrandCare Systems (www.grandcare.com; 262-384-4903) comes with a cable-box-like device that pulls in news, weather, e-mail and the like from the Internet and displays it on the senior's TV. A basic setup costs about $1,000 to install and then $300 a month. "GrandCare can keep an individual connected and independent at home, and it costs less than just 90 days of assisted living," says company spokeswoman Laura Mitchell.

Although lacking the comprehensive protection offered by home-monitoring systems, emergency bracelets or pendants can be more affordable. The Philips Lifeline Medical Alarm (www.lifelinesys.com; 800-380-3111) costs $38 a month and is a watch-like alarm that you wear on your wrist. Press the help button, which phones the Lifeline Response Center. You can then speak into the Philips device to describe your situation to a support person, who assesses your situation and contacts a neighbor, relative or even emergency services, if necessary.

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