Cellphone Guide for Seniors16 minute read

16 minute read

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Updated for December, 2018

If you’re a senior living at home, chances are you’ve thought about owning cell phone to help you stay safe and connected. Or maybe you already own one and are hoping to optimize its settings to meet your unique needs. Either way, when choosing a cell phone for yourself or your baby boomer relative, it’s important to do your research.

typing for mobile health

Finding the right product begins at deciding exactly what you need in a phone. Do you need extra large text? A great camera for video chatting with the grandkids? A smartphone to help you manage your smart devices? A simple phone that’s only for emergency calls? Making these choices is the first step in finding the right phone and the right plan.

While younger generations still outnumber their older counterparts when it comes to tech use, seniors are quickly jumping on the digital bandwagon. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that among seniors ages 65 and above, about 85% owned a cell phone. Of those seniors, 46% used a smartphone and 40% used a regular cell phone.

These statistics show that seniors are quickly embracing digital life. Knowing that their peers are using this technology may help more reluctant seniors to also consider adding a cell phone to their lifestyle, especially if they live alone but also want to stay in touch.

Smartphones can provide hours of entertainment, but they can also make life easier and more efficient.

senior man on phone at cafe

Smart Devices

If you or the senior you care for lives alone, they may find it beneficial to install smart devices around their home. If they do so, a smartphone is essential for managing these IoT products. These are typically controlled through specialized apps that the owner can access through their phone. Installing these smart devices can allow you to turn on your lights, your thermostat, or even your radio right from your smartphone.

Entertainment

Smartphones can help guard against boredom in seniors living alone, thanks to games, audiobooks, and social media available right on their phones. Audiobooks and podcasts may help seniors whose eyesight makes it hard for them to read from physical books and magazines. In addition, there are many free game apps available that may help keep them challenged and entertained. Finally, baby boomers can use social media to connect with family and old friends through apps like Facebook or Instagram.

Greater Sharing Capacity

Seniors who use smartphones may feel more connected since they can easily send and receive pictures and videos from loved ones. This can be especially helpful for baby boomers who live far away from their friends and grandchildren. Smartphones also enable video chatting, which can help seniors stay close with their families even from afar.

Practical Apps

Smartphones can provide hours of entertainment, but they can also make life easier and more efficient. Seniors can use apps to help them remember where they parked, ensure that they take their medication on time, communicate with their doctor, and receive severe weather alerts, among other things. These apps help seniors live confidently and independently even when they’re at home by themselves.

Stimulation

Seniors looking to sharpen their thinking can use brain-training apps that help improve memory and logical thinking. These apps may help seniors slow the aging process and stay mentally fresh.

Virtual Assistants

iPhones and most Androids come equipped with a virtual assistant. These personal assistants respond to voice commands and questions like, “Call Jenny,” or “How many feet are in a mile?” Seniors may find these particularly useful, since they eliminate the need to type full sentences on the keypad and can help you navigate a new phone.

iPhones come equipped with Siri, the Apple virtual assistant, while Android users can choose from a range of apps that perform similar tasks.

Electronic Tracking

If you tend to misplace your glasses case or keys, you might find it helpful to buy electronic tracking tiles. You can add these to the items you tend to lose the most – like that pesky remote control – and then track them with your phone. Turn on the alert from your phone, and the tile you’ve added will make a beeping noise, leading you to the misplaced object.

If you do opt for a smartphone, make sure you’re careful when downloading apps.

older man on phone and tablet

Learning Curve

Seniors who struggle with technical skills may find it difficult or frustrating to learn an entirely new set of skills at their age. Or some may simply be unwilling to invest the time to acquaint themselves with a complicated new device. For these baby boomers, it may be better just to skip the smartphone and opt for a basic phone.

Too Many Options

For baby boomers who only want to use a few features of their phone, having hundreds of options may feel overwhelming. These additional applications may make it harder to find and use the very basic features, like texting or finding the date and time.

Expense

Even the most basic smartphone will cost you at least a hundred dollars, with some of the top-of-the-line phones almost reaching the thousand-dollar price point. This means it may only be worth the money if you plan on using many of the features. Additionally, some cell phone carriers lock customers into a long-term contract, so you’ll be paying a monthly fee for at least a year or more. A smartphone plan will also require that you pay for data, or the internet that’s used to host your apps, in addition to basic calls and texting, making it more expensive than a basic phone plan.

Potential for Theft

Unfortunately, a brand new smartphone can make you more susceptible to theft, since these devices are in such high demand. If the thought of staying constantly vigilant against criminals feels too worrisome, consider buying a flip or bar phone instead. These cheaper devices are much less likely to be targeted by thieves.

Accidental Spending

In addition to the price of the phone itself, you’ll be faced with many opportunities to spend money on apps and online shopping. If you do opt for a smartphone, make sure you’re careful when downloading apps. Some are free to download, but offer sneaky in-app purchases that may cause you to spend more while using the app, often without even realizing it.

Harder to Set Up

Smartphones may be more complicated to set up than basic phones. For this reason, it may be helpful to ask a friend or family member to help you set up your phone or ask a store representative to help you before you leave the store. If you’re trading in an older phone for a new one, make sure you ask the tech to help you transfer your data and contacts to the new device.

iPhones come equipped with Siri, the Apple virtual assistant, while Android users can choose from a range of apps that perform similar tasks.

If you talk with your family members frequently, check with your loved ones and see what type of product they use before buying your own.

senior man and daughter laughing at smartphone
If you decide to buy a smartphone, your first task will be to choose between an iPhone and an Android. Ask any phone owner, and they’ll have a strong opinion on this topic. Here are the major differences between these phones.

iPhones

These devices are made by Apple, and they run a unique operating system called iOS. Some critics argue that iPhones are more intuitive to use than androids, but it really depends on the customer. Try both types of phone at a your local electronics store to find out which one you prefer. iPhones tend to feature tougher security than Androids, but they will cost you more than most Androids.

Androids

These devices run Android operating systems. While Apple only sells one type of phone–the iPhone–there are hundreds of Android devices. These devices run the price gamut, from $100 to $1,000 or more. Some users prefer these devices because they’re more customizable, but other customers feel overwhelmed by all the different options they offer. Just note that these phones won’t run any Apple apps. So if your grandchildren use Facetime, an iPhone app, you won’t be able to chat with them on this app unless you also have an iPhone. If you talk with your family members frequently, check with your loved ones and see what type of product they use before buying your own.

older man checking mobile health
You may hear people talk about phones being “locked” or “unlocked.” These terms just refer to whether or not the phone is tied to one network. For instance, if you buy a phone from AT&T, it will only work with that carrier. You won’t be able to switch sim cards and use another network.

On the other hand, an unlocked phone is a free agent. That is, you can use it with any network you choose. Unlocked phones can be purchased through Amazon, or through ebay or Craigslist if you prefer to buy used. You’ll typically pay more for an unlocked device, thanks to the freedom and flexibility it provides.

When comparing phone networks, ask if they offer senior plans.

senior woman on phone call

Pay as You Go

With these phone plans, the title says it all. You’ll never be tied into a contract, but will rather pay for the phone as you use it. Some plans offer cheap monthly rates with a certain number of minutes and texts included. Other plans charge you a flat rate for each day you use your phone but provide unlimited minutes and texts.

Flexible Plans

These plans charge you a base rate for each month, but this rate only covers keeping the phone in service. Any minutes, data, or texts you use will added to the monthly rate. Most of these plans charge by tiers; you’ll pay for whichever level of usage you reach each month. This might be a good choice for seniors who vary in their cell phone use from month to month.

Unlimited Plans

These plans are a solid option for seniors who plan to use apps, video, games, video chatting, etc. These plans allow you to use as much data as you want without worrying about paying a huge fee at the end of the month. However, the world unlimited can be a little deceptive. While your carrier won’t charge you more for using a lot of data, your service may slow down at the end of the month, or you may lose the quality of the TV show or Youtube videos you are streaming. This is called throttling.

Senior-Specific Plans

When comparing phone networks, ask if they offer senior plans. You may be able to receive a discount on your plan if you’re over a certain age, or qualify for certain special features. Some carriers provide health and safety packages that include doctor-on-call apps, wellness check-ins, and medication reminders just for older adults.

Keypads can become jammed if they get dirty, and it can be harder to find certain symbols.

older man getting a ride from a service

Volume

If you’re an older adult who’s hard of hearing, try looking for a phone with a louder volume range. Some phones are made specifically for the hearing impaired, and others are designed to be compatible with hearing aids. Also consider choosing a phone with a physical volume adjustment button, so you can easily change the volume without having to search for the right setting.

Touchscreen vs Keypad

If dexterity is an issue for you or the senior you’re shopping for, you’ll want to consider whether mechanical keypad or touchscreen will be easier to use. Touch screens tend to be less accurate than mechanical keypads, since you’re typing on a flat screen with no raised surface. However, keypads can become jammed if they get dirty, and it can be harder to find certain symbols. Of course this decision also depends on whether you buy a smartphone or basic phone; almost all smartphones will come with a touchscreen.

Camera

Do you frequently snap pictures of your grandkids or flower garden? In this case, you might want to look for a cell phone with a quality camera. You’re more likely to find this feature in higher-end smartphones, although even most basic cell phones come with a camera. Also think about whether or not you’ll want to record videos or be able to video chat with family members.

Screen Size

Some older customers may prefer a small phone that they can easily stash in their pocket. Others may opt for a phone with a large screen so that they can read and type more easily. You’ll also want to consider the size of your grip so that you can comfortably hold the phone in one hand.

Emergency Button

Some phones designed specifically for seniors come with a physical button that will automatically dial an emergency phone number of your choosing. This could be helpful if you’re in distress and don’t have time to search for the right contact.

Fingerprint Recognition

Some of the newer model smart phones offer fingerprint recognition as a way of unlocking your device. You’ll program your fingerprint–and the fingerprints of anyone else you want to have access–into your phone during set-up. For seniors who have trouble remembering a security code, but still want to protect their phone, this could be a great option.

All apps that support this feature will then show closed captioning at the bottom.

Senior lady showing phone
If you prefer not to buy a senior-specific phone, but opt for a general model instead, there are still many settings you can customize to meet your needs. This is a great option if you inherited a cell phone from someone else, for example, or just want more flexibility than the senior phones provide. Here are a few settings you can adjust to make the phone easier to use for older adults.

Closed Captioning

Most phones include an option to turn on closed captioning for videos, whether you’re streaming a show or watching a YouTube video. All apps that support this feature will then show closed captioning at the bottom. Seniors who are hard of hearing may find this trick especially helpful. You can find the closed captioning video feature by going in your phone’s settings app.

Icon Size

Most phone manufacturers space out icons to make the home screen appear more clean and organized, but this can be tough for older adults with vision issues. If you’d like to switch to a zoom view, you can also do this in your settings app.

Voiceover

This feature allows your phone to read aloud text on the screen. If you receive a text, for example, you’ll hear the message rather than having to read it. This can also be a great help to seniors who are vision impaired.

Magnifying Camera

By switching on the magnifying feature, your phone’s camera can act as a magnifying glass, enlarging whatever subject you point it at. Seniors may appreciate this option if they’re trying to decipher fine print on a document, for example, or read a menu in a small font. You can enable this feature on your phone’s settings app as well.

For these devices, you’ll probably want to purchase a case to protect your device from being dropped.


If you purchase a flip phone or block phone, chances are you won’t need a protective case. However, most smartphones come with large glass screen that can easily break. For these devices, you’ll probably want to purchase a case to protect your device from being dropped. You can even find cases that are completely waterproof. Buying a protective case can help protect your investment and bring peace of mind.

Cell phones can empower older adults to live more independently, secure in the knowledge that help is just a quick call away. Not only that, but older adults can find social connection through their cell phones, using photo sharing, social media, and video chatting to better keep in touch with their friends and loved ones. They can also embrace a more convenient, self-sufficient lifestyle through some of the practical apps–such as parking reminders, smart thermostat apps, and medical compliance apps–available on smartphones today.

While there are many choices in the cell phone market, finding the right fit can help seniors maintain their lifestyle without giving up the freedom of living at home.

Sources:

www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/