Email solution for an older person with (minor) dementia.
November 19, 2011 2:28 PM   Subscribe

My grandma has been socially reliant on email for a decade or so now -- she emails her sister, her children, and her grandchildren. She's pretty deaf, so emails have been an especially good way of keeping in touch, as none of us live near her these days. Unfortunately, she's forgetting things now (she's 93), so what used to be possible for her now seems less so. What to do?

Here's the longer version, with technical stuff.

When she was in her 80s, a friend in her senior living facility helped get her set up on a Mac laptop with webmail. While my grandma is in no way a computer whiz, she was (with occasional troubleshooting from her family or helpers) able to write and read emails regularly. Now she's not -- she can do it with some help, but forgets the steps, and is sometimes sure she's managed to send an email when she hasn't.

We're looking for something (a tool, or a process) that is easier (as in, fewer steps to remember, and less prone to weird failures) than Mac + webmail. I'm not convinced there is such a thing, but maybe you've had a similar problem and know something I don't.

We have looked at appliances like the Mailbug, but these seem designed for people who never used a computer, rather than folks who are having trouble with complex tasks. It seems no less complex, really.

We've also considered an iPad + the Mail app, as (maybe) the sequence of open app ->read/write is simpler than dealing with a browser etc. But I'm worried that the unfamiliar UI would be rough, and the nonphysical keyboard too awkward.

There are non-technical solutions - the main one being that she does her email when her (a few days a week) helper is around, but that's emotionally hard.

posted by feckless to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
We bought a Presto for my Grandmother, which is basically an email fax machine. Sadly, it's only one-way, but works well enough for what we use it for.

Alternatively, you might want to consider a Chromebook, or some other kind of netbook with a really simple OS and mail client on top. This Chrome app seems like it might be simple enough for her to figure out.
posted by schmod at 3:03 PM on November 19, 2011

Ok, maybe I'm missing something here, but could you write down the process step by step for her, and she can keep that handy near her computer? My mom, who's in her 70's, writes down every computer thing I teach her into a little notebook, and it works pretty well.
posted by MexicanYenta at 3:39 PM on November 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know this isn't exactly what you're asking for, but my 91 year old grandmother, who can no longer email, has been able to skype us easily. My parents got her a skype video phone so she can just hit our photos on the touch screen and call. Of course this requires catching the person available, so is less convenient than email.
posted by abirdinthehand at 4:09 PM on November 19, 2011

The problem is, though, that if you come up with some kind of new gizmo for her to use, you're requiring her to learn a new thing, when you know that she's already having trouble remembering things that should be well-learned and very familiar. I'm pretty doubtful that this would lead to anything but frustration on everybody's part. I would try taping a list of super-simple instructions to her monitor; if that doesn't work, then have her do it with her helper.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 4:46 PM on November 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with having a written procedure. Something laminated, with screenshots, posted right next to the screen (maybe with a screen-mounted page holder - so it's always RIGHT THERE and she doesn't have to remember to look at it.) Include one for "check to see it's been sent."
posted by SMPA at 6:44 PM on November 19, 2011

Does her setup have a "sent mail" folder or something like that? Can you teach her how to check back after the fact and confirm that she sent the message she thought she did?
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:12 PM on November 19, 2011

Is there a way to create a "mail to" link on her desktop, and have the person's picture as the icon? Sort of like abirdinthehand describes for Skype, only for email.
posted by OLechat at 8:07 PM on November 19, 2011

I agree with WorkingMyWayHome that finding a new thing isn't going to be good when the old things aren't being remembered.

I sat down with my dad and we wrote a step-by-step guide - I did the typing and took screenshots and he sat with me and told me what made sense and what didn't. We printed it out and stuck it in a binder and, bar a few handwritten additions, it's worked well. He still forgets things, of course, but he can generally muddle through and figure out what he was up to. If all else fails, he calls me and I'll use remote desktop to see what's going on.

Some random suggestions: a large flat-screen monitor makes a lot of difference - visual cues like flags or sent mail icons are easier to pick up when you can see them clearly. Loud audio cues (like when the mail is being sent) are also a good reminder. If you're a bit deaf (as my father is) it's sometimes not obvious if something has worked or not - a loud "BING!" makes things a little more certain. A mouse is fine if you have a steady hand but trackballs are better when you shake - 90% of the "help!" calls I get are when Dad has accidentally clicked on something he didn't mean to and he panics. Most importantly, routine and habit can really help when memory is failing - this means doing the same things in the very same order every time.

Good luck.
posted by ninazer0 at 8:43 PM on November 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with the suggestion about writing out the steps. Listing the steps in different colors may help her keep track of what she's already done.

I don't think the Mail app would be that much more intuitive for her.

If you make the webmail page the home page for her browser, that would cut down a few steps. I'm assuming she doesn't otherwise surf the web, right? You might also be able to change the name of it icon to say EMAIL.

Other things that you can do is make sure she has a plain desktop and that no unnecessary apps are cluttering up the dock. Make sure the doc is as large as possible and expands as much as posible. If the dock is too confusing, minimize it and just put the browser icon on the desktop.

She'll click on the browser, and it'll open to her webmail page. That plus a cheat sheet should help some.

Good luck. We're actually beginning to look for similar solutions for my much less computer savvy mother-in-law for Christmas, so I'll be interested to see what other solutions people suggest.
posted by elizeh at 10:37 PM on November 19, 2011

Our experience was that ultimately nothing worked. My mother-in-law died 6 weeks ago at 92. She had been a competent emailer until the last few years of her life life when she just couldn't retain the details of what to do even with large written detailed instructions. As her dementia (and vision issues) worsened it just became impossible. For a while we took dictation and sent emails for her and brought large type printouts of emails received. Later we read them out loud and later still just summarized. Dementia is horrible as it robs people of themselves.

Your grandmother is unlikely to be able to retail any skills at this point -especially new ones. I would suggest addressing this from a social standpoint - is there a social worker at her living facility who can help, perhaps set her up with a volunteer who can read and type for her? Someone with a loud, low-pitched voice ideally?
posted by leslies at 4:17 AM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

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