Gadgets for grandpa

When you’re going over your Christmas gift list this year, getting grandpa an iPhone probably isn’t an option you’ve thought about – but maybe it should be.

As the large “baby boomer” demographic continues to age, the population of senior citizens in Canada will swell. Usually, more old people also mean more sick people and our health care system and old age homes will be hard-pressed to meet the challenge of accommodating everyone.

So why not create technology that assists the elderly and helps them age in the comfort of their own home?

There is already a slew of technology on the market or in development that aims to do this, according to Brian Richards, a cognitive psychologist with Toronto-based health sciences centre Baycrest that’s affiliated with the University of Toronto.

“It’s a myth that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” he says.
Richards has seen this proven first hand as creator of Baycrest’s Memory-Link program.

The program puts a personal digital assistant (PDA) in the hands of those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia. The patients use the devices to set time-based alerts, or snap photos of things or people they need to remember. It acts an aid for a brain that can’t remember things as well anymore.

“You need something to intrude upon what you’re doing at the target time,” Richards explains. “Time-based memory is where we have the most trouble in old age.”

He says technology design is also becoming more user friendly and intuitive – and the iPhone is a prime example of a design that can be used well by everyone.

Its applications are perfect for the technophile, while its touch screen navigation and large buttons make it easy for grandpa.

Here are three technologies that Richards says boomers could use to help ease the ageing process:

Jitterbug cell phone

Samsung’s Jitterbug is on the market now and offers seniors a simple approach to making calls, listening to voice mail, and using text messages on the go.

The phone comes in graphite, black, or white at $147. The flip-phone has a distinct look to it, with an oval shape and large buttons for the digits-pad, as well as a send and receive buttons marked in green and red, labeled as “yes” or “no.”

“The current cell phone [trend] has moved towards miniaturization and you can’t see the screen, you can’t press the keys,” Richards says.
Jitterbug bucks this trend and elderly people really like the device’s “straight-forward approach,” Richards said.

The phone’s ear cushion is soft, the sound loud and clear, and the on-screen text large and brief. The on-screen text also poses each call to action as a “yes” or “no” response question. For example, an incoming phone call will display the Caller ID and “Answer?” at the bottom of the screen. Then the user presses “yes” or “no.”

Pressing 0 on the keypad will also connect you to a live Jitterbug operator. The operators are able to help with requests along the lines of “call my daughter.”

The phone also has a GPS locator with calls placed to 911, and is compatible with hearing aids.


Managing a strict schedule of numerous prescription drugs is a challenge faced by many elders.

Many pills look almost identical, and there are different times of day and different instructions for taking each of them. Add to that visual impairment and memory loss, and sticking to a medication routine can be a challenge.

The Med-eMonitor from InforMedix seeks to help ease that burden. The device is about the size of a VHS tape and can run for two weeks on rechargeable batteries. It’s a pill organizer that not only has compartments that separate medication, but a reminder system, on-screen instructions, and a line of communication.

Each compartment is programmed with a date and time. When that time arrives, a musical chime alerts the senior it’s time to take medication.

When the user presses the button to open a pill compartment, text instructions appear on the LCD screen on how to properly ingest the drugs. For example, some pills might require you take them after a meal while others require an empty stomach.

If the chime is not responded to and the medication isn’t taken, the machine can place a phone call to a family member or care provider. That means family members only need intrude when they know they must.

“It’s hard for someone to feel like they live independently if they are getting three calls from their child a day,” Richards says.

The Aware Home

On the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology there is a fairly average looking three-storey home that is anything but ordinary.

Established 20 years ago, the Aware Home Research Initiative seeks to answer the question: “Is it possible to create a home environment that is aware of its occupants’ whereabouts and activities?”

“It may seem a bit like Big Brother,” Richards says. “But it helps people feel like they are not all alone and can actually be less intrusive than a person coming by.”

The project has many implications for an “ageing-in-place” approach for an elderly.
It explores a combination of technology that monitors whether a senior is in need of immediate help, is getting enough exercise, is taking medication properly, and even comes complete with entertaining games that assess cognitive function.

One tool that could be in the home is an online medicine cabinet complete with facial recognition. The cabinet recognizes the individual standing before it and informs them what medication they must take. It can monitor whether the right pills are taken thanks to RFID tags on each bottle.

Seniors can keep in touch with their family by videoconferencing over the TV set in the living room.

A camera sits atop of it to capture the user’s image, and the contact person’s image is displayed on the TV screen. Making a connection is just as easy as placing a phone call.

Buying a home like this isn’t possible for grandpa this Christmas. But technology along these lines might enter the marketplace is about five years time, Richards estimates.

For now, take another look at that iPhone.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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