Elder Computing
January 6, 2012 7:01 AM   Subscribe

I have a day or so to try and straighten some problems with my 97 year old grandmother's computer. I need some advice on how to set it up to encourage stress free computing.

My dad came to my house last night all upset about the computer problems he is having with his mom's computer. He doesn't know much about computers, being in his seventies and never really having much exposure to using computers. I have only taken a quick look at the computer, a beautiful large screened IMac running OS X. It seems to have two main problems 1) there seems like there is a problem with the email program where old emails keep coming back and there are too many old accounts and 2) IPhoto seems to not be installed anymore!

It seems the problem might be that there have been multiple accounts in the email program, the latest one being a gmail account. I was going to get the older accounts to forward into the one gmail account, clear all the other accounts in the email program and set it up again withe the one gmail account. I hope that should make things simpler.

Another problem is that multiple people seem to use the computer. My dad was all upset about the problems and he said just to delete my gradmother's husband's account. This didn't seem right to me, it has got to be some kind of human rights violation or something to not let somebody get their emails. Is there a simple way to set this up for multiple people in a group where confusion is likely to build quickly? My first thought was to set them up with using gmail in a web browser so accounts can be changed and there are no duplicate emails coming in from the server. That is how my wife and I share our Mac laptop without any trouble. Now that I have been looking at it, the gmail interface is not really good for older people since it has kind of abstract icons and grey color schemes.

I will work on these problems today but I wanted to get some advice as I might give back the computer later today. My grandmother is 97, which is crazy to me that someone who was alive while Thomas Edison was alive is having email problems in 2012! Anyway, I was wondering if anyone had general advice for setting up a computer for an elder. I would love if there were simple ways to make the gmail web interface more friendly. Also, is it crazy to try and set her up using video conferencing to visit some of her many great grandchildren? Any other general advice for elder computing?
posted by JayNolan to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Never Give Out Admin Rights. Ever.

vnc and remotely install stuff if you have to. Got a problem? vnc/remote desktop/whatever.
posted by devnull at 7:13 AM on January 6, 2012

If multiple people use the computer, set up multiple user accounts. That's one of the things OS X is best at.
posted by bcwinters at 7:15 AM on January 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: For whatever reason, people who sell Macs have a tendency to set them up with gmail that runs within Mac Mail. I find this tends to confuse novice users fairly badly. There is a high contrast gmail theme. You'd really need to figure out whether your grandmother can deal with a new interface before you spring it on her, but I find the abstraction of taking gmail and then putting it into Mac Mail can be weird for people especially in a multiple-account situation like you've described.

How do you think they'd feel about fast-user-switching? Where both users were logged in to the mac simultaneously and you could go back and forth between them. This way each user would have their own desktop and their own configurations in Mail [if you have to keep that] so that they can keep them straight. You can show them how to get back and forth and you could set the two desktops up slightly differently [different desktop images] so they can tell which one they are in.

And iPhoto may have been tossed out. Check for it in the trash. If you don't see it there, it will still be on the system disks that came with the computer, if you can find them, and reinstalled from there or you can get it from the Apple website.

And the basic issue, I'd think, is to make sure you can keep the computer as familiar to your grandmother as possible while fixing the problems she's having. When I've been working with the 80+ set helping them with computing stuff, I find that memory stuff is usually my biggest challenge, making sure they remember things like passwords [just write them all down, apple has this super helpful cheat sheet that you should fill out with her while you are there] and ways you've explained to do things. Screenshots are really helpful.

And as far as video chat, yeah it's not that complicated on a Mac. You can use Skype, iChat or something else. If you use Skype which is sort of industry standard, set her up with an account, make sure it turns on when she turns on the computer, and make sure she knows how to accept an incoming request. You can use this to do desktop sharing and then you can help her with other things where you can remotely take control of her mouse, like /dev/null says. Bring a laptop to the house and practice Skyping across the living room so she knows what it does, what sounds it makes.

And at some level the havoc that you can wreak with admin rights is really different in a Mac universe. The Mac will re-ask you for a password if it wants to do something adminnish in the first place. You're welcome to set her up with a user account that doesn't have admin rights, but it's not going to save her that much hassle and might be problematic, so I'd take that step with care.

Sounds like your dad is frustrated and worried about solving his own problems and not your grandmother's. It might be a good idea to find a way for you to be able to help her in the future [if it's the sort of thing you're interested in] with a weekly or bi-weekly Skype chat and not having to have someone come over to the house all the time if that's problematic. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 7:20 AM on January 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

You'll probably have the best luck if you can have some conversations about how your grandmother and her husband use the computer now. Step by step, what does each of them do in order to check their email, look at a website, etc? Changes that you make to 'simplify' things could backfire if the users don't understand what has been done or it goes contrary to how they are doing things now. Separate user accounts might help clear things up, especially if they have different desktop pictures so that it is very easy to tell whose account is active.

Check out Jessamyn's excellent advice about helping people with computers; she also links to this super-useful list of tips.

And the basic issue, I'd think, is to make sure you can keep the computer as familiar to your grandmother as possible while fixing the problems she's having.

Oh, hi jessamyn :)
posted by heyforfour at 7:25 AM on January 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

It is more likely that iphoto has simply been accidentally removed from the dock, happens all the time. Go into applications and drag it back to the dock. And, as mentioned, set up user accounts for anyone using the machine.
posted by HuronBob at 7:34 AM on January 6, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks jessamyn, great response and I love the link through heyforfour giving advice to talking to non-experts.

I agree with what people are saying about how it might make more trouble to change stuff. I was hoping to maybe straighten out the mail accounts in the email program and also making a big link on the desktop to the gmail page so she can give it a try and be able to use whichever one is works better.

I am not sure about the user switching. I have spent a little more time snooping and the computer and it really doesn't seem to be used very much based on the browser history.
posted by JayNolan at 7:43 AM on January 6, 2012

Response by poster: iphoto is completely gone! The trash is empty as well. I don't really know what happened but I think there was an email problem where iphoto would open up automatically and apparently extreme measures were taken!
posted by JayNolan at 7:45 AM on January 6, 2012

Similar problems caused us to install LogMeIn on our computers and my elderly parents' computer. We regularly get a call from them to fix something they've inadvertently goofed up. With LogMeIn's remote access, we can fix anything from thousands of miles away, simply and quickly. There are other remote access programs out there, but this one has worked well for us and has a free version.

BTW, one of the things they enjoy has been a shortcut to each grandchild's Facebook account on their desktop. We created a FB account for them that they never directly use, but they've enjoyed being able to see family members' posts in this way.
posted by summerstorm at 7:56 AM on January 6, 2012

Don't give up on multi-users. It definitely keeps things tidier. Make sure none are admins, and only use the admin login when you really must. Make yourself a named account too.

A simple thing that helps a lot: when you make multi-users, be sure to set their desktops to VERY OBVIOUSLY DIFFERENT DESKTOPS, so that Uncle Steve is bright Orange, and grandchild Lisa's is green and wavy, so that they know immediately if they're logged in as the 'wrong' person. If it's not a blue desktop, Grandma knows to "switch back to me".

As for mail, I tried setting up my 85ish grandmother's Mac with GMail in a browser, but she found it way too confusing, and so we switched to the Mail app (still a GMail account) which she much prefers. The fact that "Mail" is a thing in her dock and it's not related to "the Web" is helpful for her. GMail seems simple to us nerds, but it's pretty weird to non-nerds. Also, with multi-users, this makes it pretty impossible for someone to use mail when logged in as someone else -- they'll see it's someone else's mail and change users. With the web-based approach, you can end up in all sorts of weird hybrid "Joe is logged in as Jane but is reading his own mail" situations that are hell to troubleshoot. Set it up in a way that forces them to change users to get their mail!

But most importantly: Even if you do nothing else, make sure you enable VNC or screen sharing, make sure it works from the outside internet, and make damn sure you have a way to find your grandmother's IP address when it changes so you can get back in. You can use some fancy dynamic-DNS name trickery and an update app, or just a cron jobbed script that pokes it to you once a day by silent mail or other means. The latter method is probably more durable.

As long as you can get at the thing later, it doesn't matter if you forget things today.

(And you will.)

I could think of more if it wasn't almost time for my cocoa and sleepytime. I'm old too. ;)
posted by rokusan at 8:14 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding LogMeIn. The great thing about it is that you can even access it from a smartphone. The phone app is like £20 (the actual LogMeIn account and computer software is free) but it works great and it's surprisingly easy to use a computer remotely just using a touchscreen phone.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:14 AM on January 6, 2012

But most importantly: Even if you do nothing else, make sure you enable VNC or screen sharing, make sure it works from the outside internet, and make damn sure you have a way to find your grandmother's IP address when it changes so you can get back in. You can use some fancy dynamic-DNS name trickery and an update app, or just a cron jobbed script that pokes it to you once a day by silent mail or other means. The latter method is probably more durable.

Plus with LogMeIn you don't need to do any of the above - you just log into the LogMeIn website, and as long as the computer at the other end is turned on with LogMeIn running and connected to the internet, it works.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:16 AM on January 6, 2012

Regarding iPhoto, see if she still has the install DVDs that came with her iMac (they might still be in the iMac box if she has that in the attic or something).

In the past (and probably still), there were two DVDs that came with a new Mac—
  • a Mac OSX Install disc, and
  • an Applications Install disc
You should be able to re-install iPhoto from the latter DVD. After doing so, you'll probably want to run the Software Update... (which if you click on the Apple Menu () is always the second item down). Software Update will check if there are more current versions of iPhoto (almost certainly), and then download and install them.

I don't know why iPhoto would interfere with her Mail app, unless maybe she got confused and clicked on the Photo Browser button that's see-able when composing a new email...

As to the Mail app bringing back old emails... I'm not sure what that is about. Is it possible that she deletes the emails in the Mail app, but then still sees the email itself if she goes to Gmail.com in her browser? Because that will happen...

Also, and this only applies if you have a Mac at home, I would see if she has an app on her machine called Facetime, which allows for video-chat. I've used it with my nephew to talk him through things on his Mac. It's crazy helpful. If she is running OS 10.6.6 or later her iMac can run Facetime. If she doesn't have it on her machine already, it's 99¢ from the App Store
posted by blueberry at 12:26 AM on January 7, 2012

EoI, LogMeIn is a fine example of an app that does the fancy trickery I mentioned. It'll work. (Granted, I explained it badly; I was tired.)

Point, and this can't be stressed enough: if you only achieve one thing during your limited time fixing the machine, install something, some way to access it remotely, no matter who is logged in or what might or might not be running.

I prefer a two-line script and VNC since the clients are better and there a billion free ones for iDevices, too, but that's personal preference.

One way or the other, just make sure you don't have to run back to re-re-fix something the next day. :)
posted by rokusan at 12:29 AM on January 7, 2012

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