Computer advice for elderly
August 27, 2013 10:44 AM   Subscribe

I need to purchase and configure a computer for my 95-year old grandmother so she can make Skype calls to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She lives in another state, so hands on assistance is not possible. My 70-year old mother is going to set things up for me; I just need to get the hardware and configure the software.

My grandmother has zero computer experience and will be initially very resistant to this. (This is my mother's idea, so I'll let them "discuss" this.) My grandmother is physically and mentally very good for her age, but her eyesight is going. I have experience with Windows and a little Chrome OS, so no iOS or Linux solutions. I was thinking of at least a 14" screen with everything starting up automatically. I'm going to put Skype (obviously), probably Teamviewer so I can remotely access the computer, and a free anti-virus program (i.e. AVG). My mother is setting up the internet connection at my grandmother's home which will have a cable modem. To minimize complexity, I'm not getting a router; the laptop will plug directly into the cable modem. What else do I need to consider, such as accessibility programs, input devices? Should I disable the trackpad, at least initially? Any experience in setting up something for elderly?
posted by medarby to Computers & Internet (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd probably get her a tablet before I'd get her a computer. They're generally a lot easier to use for both the very young and very old. You can run Skype just fine on a tablet. iOS is incredibly simple (and not very powerful) but might be the best choice. I like Android better, and there's always the possibility of getting her a Surface or other Windows touch tablet if you really want her to have a computer behind the tablet interface.

For an older person, I'd probably go either iPad or a Windows tablet with a larger screen for readability reasons.

Edit: You could also get her a big touchscreen PC (like an HP Touchsmart, or something) and hide the keyboard and mouse so she could use it as a giant tablet. If you go Windows, wait for Windows 8.1 in October.
posted by cnc at 10:55 AM on August 27, 2013 [9 favorites]

That. Yes. IPad or android tablet. This isnt about what YOU "feel like" setting up.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:58 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is definitely a laptop yes? That would be my first suggestion (or a tablet) so she can bring it to someone if she needs help. I work with elderly people and computers a lot, I would also suggest

- Have it do updates automatically unless there is a good reason not to (you can tell her to just leave it on at night or schedule them sometime when she is likely to have the machine up)
- Most people I know who are older like the trackpad better than the mouse. Disable "tap to click" and basically everything else it does automagically. Have a spare mouse for her if she'd like it.
- I would use Chrome or Firefox and remove IE from the situation entirely, maybe consider a way to make mailto links open in her mail program of choice if she uses email (they can confuse/annoy people). Make her home page something she's likely to want/enjoy (Google or the local news or a family page or something like Internet Buttons)
- Schedule AVG to run regularly and set up Windows Firewall
- Look and see if her local public library has basic computer classes or books about getting started or consider getting her a Dummies guide (terrible name, good books)
- Set up her Skype account ahead of time for her and write down what her username/password are somewhere where she can see/find it
- Do not require a password for her to log in to her machine

Basically the fewer hurdles you can put in between her and her being able to do a thing she would enjoy, the better.
posted by jessamyn at 10:59 AM on August 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

What cnc says. My old man has a laptop and we have had nothing but problems. The moment a program updates itself and looks different he is lost. Popup box suggesting to download something to make you PC run faster, count him in.

But all he wants is read the web and browse his mails. So see that you can get her a tablet of either flavor and get a docking station or something with a keyboard to go with it.

I can not stress this enough. And I am a Windows fanboy starting from 3.1
posted by nostrada at 11:00 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another +1 for an Apple product is that she can bring it to the Apple store if there's a problem.
posted by bleep at 11:06 AM on August 27, 2013

Get a tablet but please be prepared to repeatedly teach your sweet grandma how to use it. I got my 59-year-old mom a samsung galaxy tab 10.1 and having watched her trying to figure out the GUI, I realized just how difficult Android can be for first time users because nothing is consistent.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:06 AM on August 27, 2013

I tried to get my elderly grandfather to learn a computer several years ago, and it was a failure. Even things that seem so second nature to us were almost insurmountable obstacles for him. The relationship between the mouse and the cursor. The difference between a click and a double click. Click and drag. An iPad is absolutely the way to go.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:13 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

ios is much more accessible to people with sight loss than Windows or android (although android is catching up). The accessibility features are built into Apple products, unlike Windows, and they are easy to adjust if her sight gets worse. You can use an i-device without a screen out of the box, that's how good they are. I would get her an iPad or a Mac something if you really want her to have a pc. There is a lot of info on the internets on how to use the accessibility features (hint, it's not too hard).

Not a fan girl, at all! Helping people with sight loss use technology is my job. But this is one thing Apple have got right.
posted by Helga-woo at 11:15 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Having gone through this with a couple of generations of folks, I suggest a tablet.

- Simple interfaces
- Maintenance on the device is non issue, low to no security risks.
- Can be tied to your itunes or google account for purchasing.
- Can be remotely managed by you or other family member.
- Is portable and holds charge much longer than traditional compute interfaces.

A laptop is, frankly, a headache unless it's something she wants. If it's a laptop, make sure it's loaded to the gills with ram, that it has an ssd - do not cheap out and get a crappy laptop that is slow or underpowered or made from cheap components that you will then wonder if it's a hardware issue or a user issue. Make sure that there is remote management set up on it so you can screen share.

Really though, get a tablet if it's doable - set it up with remote administration.
posted by iamabot at 11:17 AM on August 27, 2013

My grandma is sitting in her easy chair, using Skype on her iPad, and she says: iPad!
posted by barnone at 11:17 AM on August 27, 2013

I'd love to get her a tablet, but no router eliminates that option. Ongoing costs and location prohibits a cellular data plan. What I "feel like" setting up (tablet with 4g) is not possible. She's a 14 hour drive away in a town of about 5000 people in western Iowa, so not a lot of local options either (e.g. no Apple store). All I can do is call or remote in; I can't expect any help with hardware after initial setup.

Touchscreen PC is an option, but the cost factor rears it's ugly head. jessamyn has the best ideas; i like the trackpad option and the homepage idea. I doubt she'll use email but I could talk her through that over time if she wanted.

What about Windows 8? I haven't upgraded yet, still on Win7. I haven't heard good things about Win8, but if it's easier for her I'll learn it.
posted by medarby at 11:18 AM on August 27, 2013

I got my grandma (80's) set up with a PC about 10 yrs ago and it's been a nightmare. Initially I was local so I could hands on teach her and I can't imagine having to teach her remotely. I'd love to be able to transition her to a tablet, but now that she's figured out how to open her email she's resistant to more change. She buys a new $500 machine every few years because its easier/cheaper to do that than to take it to someone to remove all the viruses and malware- like nostrada's dad she clicks on every pop-up.

Consider a tablet with a stand.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 11:19 AM on August 27, 2013

Ok, as a side thread, if I was to include a router and get her a tablet, how would I remote into the router for administration purposes without a computer directly connected to it? Also, how do you remote into an iPad? I've never heard of that.
posted by medarby at 11:21 AM on August 27, 2013

This little touch-screen router/extender is awesome and very simple to use.

Verizon is $20 for a month of 3G on your iPad. If there is coverage, it's not a bad option.
posted by barnone at 11:22 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

iPad is really gonna be the best solution here.
posted by gnutron at 11:31 AM on August 27, 2013

Have you thought about eldy

"Eldy the NGO
Eldy helps older people to use computers and enjoy the internet revolution. Eldy is a software developed by Eldy NGO, a non-profit organization, freely available from this web site.
Eldy the software
Eldy can be set up in PC (Windows, Linux and Mac), TABLET, TELEVISION making use of technological common devices and the internet easier. Eldy provides e-mail account, a web browser, a chat service, a text editor, pictures management, weather forecast and video conference."

It uses Skype for the video conference part.
posted by stuartmm at 11:32 AM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

My 88 year old grandmother has a Mac Mini and apparently is on first-name basis with a fleet of CSRs from AppleCare. So, whatever device you end up with, spring for the most lavish service contract you can---she doesn't want to "bother" any of the several relatives who are ready and willing to help her figure out the issue when something isn't working as expected.

(I think my grandmother would love an iPad, but there's not exactly a spare and there's a concern about eyesight, and at this point she's used to the computer.)
posted by leahwrenn at 11:34 AM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

We set up my 83 year old mother with desk-tops twice, to no avail. She's now two months in to ipad usage and she's a queen. I've got to sat that by getting rid of the frustrating aspects and allowing her to just use the features she likes (email, googling, Skype) has made her feel like a champ.

One of my brothers had coverage on his phone plan that allowed for another data connection cheap. We split this cost within the siblings.
posted by readery at 11:41 AM on August 27, 2013

Just another person chiming in to get her a tablet. My grandma (who is 89) has had a computer for years, and she's been helped along with intensive in-person help, phone help, etc, etc. We got her on skype for about 15 minutes, but then it "stopped working." (She was afraid the camera was taking pictures of her when the computer was off, so put a piece of masking tape over the lens, which she forgot about, which I didn't find until I visited her over Thanksgiving, and was all "your camera isn't broken you just taped over the lens WHY WHY DO YOU DO THIS OH MY GOD.") She never, ever "got" her computer. Ever.

We got her a kindle fire for her birthday, and the two of them are inseparable. Now she's on angry bird leaderboards. Now she's sending emails all the time. Now she's all over facebook. She can search for and download apps on her own. I would have never thought it was possible.

I don't know what to tell you about your router question, but I do know that for whatever reason, the tablet makes sense to my grandma in a way that her computer never has and never will.
posted by phunniemee at 11:56 AM on August 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

Honestly, I think a tablet is probably still your best option...even if the monthly cost is higher, I think it will be worth it in terms of saving you a lot of headaches.

Also - if you do end up wanting to add email, I wanted to give a shout out to Paw Paw Mail. It's something like $8 a month and SO worth it. My grandma loves it and was unable to use a regular email program at all.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:56 AM on August 27, 2013

Recently I got my 95 year old great-grandma an iPad. I even posted an askme about it!

It replaced her computer, which she never quite got the hang of, despite years of us trying to help her use it. Like others have mentioned, using a mouse was difficult for her to understand. A data plan for the iPad cost the same as the cable internet she was paying for. Another benefit of the iPad is that lots of people are familiar with iOS, so if/when she asks them for help, they will most likely be able to easily walk her through the basic stuff. When my great-grandma had a desktop, all of the grandkids weren't always on the same page about how everything was configured.

I had her iPad shipped to me, I set up everything for her, put money in her iTunes account, sent everyone in my family she might ask for help a list of her usernames and passwords, and brought it over to her. Perhaps you could set it up for her, and ship it to your mom?

Recently, she told me her iPad is the nicest thing that she owns.
posted by inertia at 12:01 PM on August 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

Ok, as a side thread, if I was to include a router and get her a tablet, how would I remote into the router for administration purposes without a computer directly connected to it? Also, how do you remote into an iPad? I've never heard of that


Configure the router to always provide the iPad with a static IP address based on it's MAC address. Have the router forward an external port of your choosing to a port that allows for remote administration on the iPad. Pair the router with an account at the DDNS provider so you always have easy-to-remember hostname to connect to.

The Catch:

It seems there's no VNC server / remote desktop server app for non-jailbroken iPads/iPhones, but it looks like one exists for Android
posted by RonButNotStupid at 12:12 PM on August 27, 2013

medarby: Ok, as a side thread, if I was to include a router and get her a tablet, how would I remote into the router for administration purposes without a computer directly connected to it? Also, how do you remote into an iPad? I've never heard of that.

I've been tech support for my parents for several years now, and I've never had a router issue that couldn't be solved by unplugging it and plugging it back it. As far as remote into an iPad? I don't think you can, but there really isn't much for you to do that you couldn't just walk her through over the phone, especially if you have an iPad handy to follow along with what she is seeing.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:26 PM on August 27, 2013

Go for the iPad, or a computer with a touchscreen, but make sure both screens are large enough.

Against my judgement, my uncle bought my grandfather (mid-80s) a Mac a few years ago. It took hours to get him to understand the computer, and he was unable to use the mouse. We tried getting him a laptop with a trackpad, and while that was more intuitive, he kept bumping it with his other hand, etc. I don't think I've ever received an email from him and to this day, the only thing he uses on that computer is a word doc that says "FINANCIALS."

On the other hand, both my grandmothers (74 and 83) have tablets. The 74-year-old one has a Surface, and the 83-year-old one has an iPad. Neither of them use any apps that I know of, but both of them LOVE their tablets. They are literally never apart from them. I get emails from both of them probably once a week, and the 74-year-old one has completely stopped using cookbooks.

Just make sure you get one of those little touch pen things. I would recommend a keyboard, too, if she knows how to type. If not, the screen will probably just be easier.
posted by obviousresistance at 12:26 PM on August 27, 2013

I'm not an iPad fan, but many computer-averse people adapt well to them. The Surface seems to be a great bargain right now. A laptop is as computer-like as I would get - if iy has to be repaired, it's portable. Consider adding a keyboard if she's comfortable typing. I still hate on-screen keyboards. What does she enjoy? Crosswords, taking pictures, solitaire, ? Get rid of most icons, and put icons on for apps she might enjoy.

I've worked with seniors and computers. I always try to teach specific tasks, like how to get a picture from email to the slideshow, or how to type an address list in a text editor. Usually 1 task at a time. Once in a while a useful concept - this button tends to perform this function in most programs. This screen icon means x. And lots of honest, positive feedback. You're right, Gran, that's kind of goofy design, but you figured it out anyway.
posted by theora55 at 12:46 PM on August 27, 2013

Apparently it's possible to remote into mobile devices with Teamviewer, but it's not free.

Now, speaking as someone with a Windows PC, Android phone, Windows tablet, iPad2 tablet. (Win7 desktop, Win7 and WinRT tablet--Win8/RT is infinitely better for tablet interfaces than the other Windows, but anyway.)

I eventually gave my iPad2 to my 70-year-old non-tech-savvy mother, because it's so unsophisticated, unpowerful, and simple that a 3-year-old can use it (which some coworkers have done--don't agree with that). You just can't do much with it, so it's hard to screw it up, basically. Mom now reads all sorts of classic books with the help of built-in dictionaries, emails with relatives overseas, is figuring out Skype, and plays a lot of card-type games to keep her mind agile. She never did figure out Angry Birds, though...

For unsophisticated users easily intimidated by technology, I HIGHLY suggest staying away from traditional computer setups, regardless of your own familiarity, especially if she doesn't even type much. You can't go there for support anyway, and that becomes bothersome with all the additional training and remote cleaning and potential discrete hardware issues. For the sake of usability and accessibility in this situation, you must go with the simplest and least frustrating for all parties, but especially the user. That means a tablet like iPad or Android (Kindle) or Surface RT...

Some notes about the Surface RT. Unfortunately it's gotten bad reviews, but lots of good user reviews who understand WinRT != Win8 full and already have a strong idea of task usage. RT is a locked down OS, which means malware aren't going to be a problem like on regular Windows machines. It is still much more powerful than either iOS and Android, because it supports real multitasking and comes with MS Office 2013-RT (not Outlook yet), and with a full web browser (IE only, sadly), you don't need to install many of the video streaming/whatever apps anyway, and the vast majority of websites will be compatible, as opposed to using the mobile web browsers on other tablet devices.

I'm not sure I would recommend the Surface RT for a first-time, easily intimidated computer user simply because it's much more functional than either iOS/Android and thus has more things to learn, like the various edge swipe functions and how to snap-multitask and what the desktop is for. But if someone can learn those basics (ignoring the desktop), then Surface RT is definitely an option and is on sale. It also has optional matching covers with built-in keyboard.

So chiming in with most everyone else: Tablet (tablet OS). I'd also follow inertia's path above--set things up initially, remove things they won't use or hide icons. Figure out the networking. Done.

And about cost...Um. I'd treat this as a luxury item designed to improve the quality of life for an elderly person; I mean, really, think about how old she is. There should be minimal frustration for her.
posted by Ky at 12:56 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sorry to chime in with the solution you don't want, but I heartily agree with the iPad recommendation. My Dad (82) has had various windows laptops over the years that he never really understood, and thinks would mysteriously break all the time. I got him an iPad2 for his 80th birthday and he fucking loves that thing. He told me its the first thing he picks up when he wakes up in the morning. He is able to use Facetime to call me and videochat with me and the kids (if you set up Skype, it will be just as easy). He downloads apps, he watches TV on it. Its fantastic.

I honestly dont think you will ever need to remote into a router or the iPad. Just got to get both set up initially, and she should be good to go.
posted by Joh at 2:06 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am hesitant about recommending specialist accessible operating systems/complete software anyone, like Eldy (which to be fair, I've not heard about before). There's a couple of different ones around. They do work well for some people, which is fine, but they tend to fall down when you step out of the box. And you don't have to step far - I've seen them have problems with things like out of ink notifications from the printer, if you can't see the notification and know how to turn it off, your computer can be out of action until someone comes along who knows how to do it.

I haven't used Windows 8 myself yet, I've not heard much good either. I know it isn't brilliant for accessibility - there is no built in screen reader - although it doesn't seem like you grandmother needs that (yet). It does have a magnifier, but I'm not sure how easy it is to get on with.

Android jelly bean is the best for accessibility - it's magnifier is getting as good as iOS's, but the screen reader is further behind. So if cost is an issue, an Android tablet running Jelly Bean would work (and honestly, if you ever need it, I think their screen reader will only get better).

I can't help you with the networking I'm afraid (unless you were in the UK, in which case one of my crack team of volunteers would also be on hand to help her ;))

Don't discount the fact that, although her sight might be good enough to read now, she might appreciate mixing it with text-to-speech sometimes, to read out her daily paper and so on.
posted by Helga-woo at 2:12 PM on August 27, 2013

Another vote for iPad. I struggled for several years with my late father and a notebook that I had made as simple as it could be. He really never caught on and didn't get much use out of it. My equally elderly and computer illiterate uncle took one look at my iPhone and went by himself and got one. He's happily using it for texting, email, Facebook, maps etc with minimal instructions from any of his kids or nieces/nephews. For some reason, everything about the interface seems natural to small children and the elderly. Get the larger iPad since she has vision problems. I have a foam rest for it to sit in my lap so that I don't have to hold it up. Get her one of those, too. Link below.

iPad pillow
posted by JaneL at 3:45 PM on August 27, 2013

Purchase a decent but not cutting edge wireless router.

Purchase the recently updated Nexus 7.

Purchase a SlimPort adapter to get HDMI out.

Purhcase cheap HDMI cables from Monoprice if you need them.

Purchase a cheap 25" monitor or 27" monitor. Make sure it's only 1080p -- you want fewer pixels over a large space to account for aging eyes, and that's the most it can output anyway.

Purchase a full-sized bluetooth keyboard and a bluetooth mouse like this one, or this one.

Install Air Droid to control it remotely.

You'll want rechargable batteries for the keyboard and mouse.

I think she can handle the minor Android inconsistencies. Android provides a great desktop experience + it can become a tablet whenever she wants. Much more robust and easier to handle than a full desktop.
posted by jsturgill at 4:36 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

In a similar situation we bought my mother-in-law a Windows touchscreen laptop that was an open box at Fry's. My mother-in-law isn't as old as your grandmother, but she has limited vision and motor skill problems due to a degenerative condition. She lives in another country so our ability to provide on-site support is limited. We set it up here and sent it home with her. She's on Skype regularly. I'm not sure she uses it for much else, but she can definitely Skype. She uses the touchscreen to find things, but likes the physical keyboard.

Also, when asker specifies no iOS solutions, it's totally okay to believe they know their own situation.
posted by 26.2 at 6:29 PM on August 27, 2013

Many years of frustrating Skype on a PC with my folks doesn't give me much confidence in it as a solution. They now use an iPad with Google Hangouts and it is a near foolproof solution.
posted by arcticseal at 7:57 PM on August 27, 2013

i bought my mom an inexpensive desktop system for her 80th birthday. i tutored her on using it and she took a computer class specifically for the elderly which was a lot of info thrown at her. they have computer classes specifically for seniors at adult/senior centers or through community education classes. if you can find a class like that for your grandma that would be great but having someone tutor her is probably best so as to go slowly. the whole mouse/cursor/insertion point is quite the learning curve for the elderly.

also, my sister has a great tech guy and set up a remote repair situation where my mom calls him when she's having a computer problem and he fixes it remotely when i can't walk her through a fix over the phone or when i can't stop by soon. i'd definitely set her up with some sort of remote access to her computer to fix computer problems even if this is you.

i also think an ipad would be easiest in the long run for your grandma. if they had been out at the time i would have bought that instead of a desktop. when i showed my mom my iphone she was really impressed with how intuitive it was and said "maybe i could get one" which i thought was so cute. she's had a hard time using cell phones and i think an iphone would be much easier.
posted by wildflower at 12:57 AM on August 28, 2013

Followup: this went a lot better than I had hoped. I got an iPad for my grandmother. I installed Skype, a free solitaire game, a news app and a weather app on it, then got rid or hid most everything else. I drilled my mother on using Skype and the other programs on it and sent her up to my grandmother's with it. The local phone company set up DSL, the modem/router, and actually connected her iPad to the network. I talked my mother and grandmother over the phone through a few small hiccups. We eventually got my 95-year old grandmother onto Skype, and she loves it. We also got most of her kids (my mother is the oldest of nine) onto Skype as well. My mother said she enjoyed playing with the other apps as well. One of my aunts is about an hour away from my grandmother, so she can help with any ongoing iPad usage problems. Overall, this was a big success. Thanks everyone for your input and basically making me give up on the cheap laptop idea and go with the more expensive but easier iPad concept. It definitely helped that I didn't have to worry about the modem/router installation.
posted by medarby at 8:57 AM on September 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

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