Vancouver firm builds ‘Grandma’s tablet’ – hardware with service

It’s a familiar, often-played stereotype. If you’ve ever seen your aging parents or grandparents struggle with using a mobile phone, taking a photo, or sending an email, it’s easy to chalk that up to age and a lack of familiarity with technology.

Geof Auchinleck’s 92-year-old mother certainly fell into this category. Never mind email, using the TV remote control was a frustrating task – one that usually ended with her calling her son for something resembling IT support.

There are some very tech-savvy senior citizens out there, using iPads, smartphones and yes, channel-surfing with the best of them. But there’s also a good-sized chunk of seniors who don’t feel comfortable with technology, and who don’t really want to learn, Auchinleck says, adding his mother is one of them.

“She just does not get along with technology, it’s not her thing. It’s not that she hasn’t got the brains for it,” he says. “But she’s just has no interest in this stuff … If something doesn’t do what she expects it to, forget it. She’s not going to use it, not going to bother.”

So Auchinleck was especially proud to see his mother tap out an email, with the help of a tablet he designed with seniors like her in mind.

Last month, Auchinleck’s Vancouver-based company, Claris Healthcare, launched a tablet specifically aimed at senior citizens. Branded as the Claris Companion, it’s designed to connect them not only to their caregivers and doctors, but also to their family and friends.

(Image: Claris Healthcare. Geof Auchinleck, creator of the Claris Companion tablet)
(Image: Claris Healthcare. Geof Auchinleck, creator of the Claris Companion tablet)

Auchinleck’s original plan was to build a device that would remind seniors to take their medication and make it easier for them to communicate with their doctors, without having to go to the hospital. Caregivers working with seniors thought that was a great idea – and Auchinleck, being fearful for his mother’s physical well-being, thought it was a good way to stop “wondering if [his] mom is lying on the kitchen floor.”

But when he floated the plan to seniors themselves, he noticed they weren’t so enthusiastic about it. They were much more interested in a device that would help them be more social, without having to leave home.

That’s when he got the idea to build a tablet that would allow seniors to send and receive email and text messages, event reminders, video chats and – a favourite among many seniors – photos.

The result is a mobile device with a two-pronged approach – it gives seniors’ grown kids peace of mind about their parents’ medical needs, but it also allows the seniors themselves to be more socially connected with the help of previously-unfamiliar technology.

“[Many seniors] who are living on their own – in other words, they’ve lost their husband or wife – will self-identify as being lonely and socially isolated,” he says. “Which is ridiculous in this day and age. I mean, we’re the best connected generation in human history, we can email, text, talk and share photos with anyone on the planet, and then we have our grandparents sitting all alone and feeling lonely.”

When he was building the tablet, Auchinleck tried to keep things as simple as possible. The tablet features built-in charging connectors in a dock, so seniors don’t need to worry about charging cables. It also has a very prominent, large 10-inch screen with large text and buttons, and slides on the side of the device so seniors can grip it more easily.

The tablet’s camera also allows seniors to make video calls, and its amplified speakers help those with hearing impairments hear the calls clearly. And to blend in more comfortably in a senior’s kitchen or living room, the tablet is encased in a light-coloured bamboo frame, rather than shiny polycarbonate or chrome.

The design process wasn’t an easy one. There is just so much taken for granted among those who grew up using technology versus those who haven’t, Auchinleck adds.

“Some of the things that came up just completely stunned me. When we first started testing this, we set it up for a user and we sent a message to them. And they carefully typed a reply and hit the big ‘send’ button. And then sat there patiently in front of it. And we sort of said, well, what are you waiting for? And they said, well, we’re waiting for the answer,” he says.

“They just had to get their head around the idea that this wasn’t two people sitting on opposite ends of a television screen … It seems so obvious, but we can’t make these assumptions.”

(Image: Claris Healthcare. Claris Companion tablet for seniors).
(Image: Claris Healthcare. Claris Companion tablet for seniors).

So far, Claris has shipped about 30 tablets as part of a pilot in January. It launched the tablet for the consumer market last month, and customers can buy the tablet from the company website.

Pricing starts at $550 for the tablet itself, and then Claris adds on a $39 monthly fee. Customers can also buy the tablet on a contract basis of $99, with a two-year contract and a monthly fee of $59. Alternatively, to kick off the tablet’s launch, customers can pick up the tablet for a one-time, lifetime fee of $995. The tablet does not have any advertising, and it allows seniors to receive emails from only trusted addresses.

Aside from giving seniors a more social window into the lives of their kids and grandkids, the Claris Companion might even convert some seniors into tech lovers, Auchinleck says.

He recalls one of his pilot users, an 84-year-old woman whose son is a computer programmer. After using the tablet for a few months, she began asking for extra features, like using photos she had received to make birthday cards. Auchinleck confidently predicts she’ll graduate to an iPad in another six months.

As for Auchinleck’s own mother, she’s discovered the photo function, which has quickly become her favourite.

“The idea is to engage seniors who aren’t comfortable with technology,” he says. “And if you think about it, it is really cool that we can get pictures from people. Every now and then, we have to step back and say, we really live in a cool world.”

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Candice So
Candice So
Candice is a graduate of Carleton University and has worked in several newsrooms as a freelance reporter and intern, including the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and the Windsor Star. Candice is a dog lover and a coffee drinker.

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