Controlling phone usage
November 3, 2013 12:09 AM   Subscribe

An elderly parent is suffering from an illness which impairs lucidity and judgment, and make inappropriate use of the phone (running Android Taking the phone away is a last resort. Do others have experience of managing this? Are there any technological or human hacks we could use to manage this without distressing them? Not US based, if it matters.

My parent has been sending random text messages and calling people they shouldn't call with strange conversations (eg hostile in-laws or ex colleagues). Yesterday, they sent all Whatsapp messages intended for others to their dentist, including expressions of affection, anger that they hadn't come to visit, condolences on a bereavement, and a selfie.

They also have extended periods of semi lucidity or full lucidity, when they might ask questions if they're not getting responses, though their text conversations are still often bizarre. They also get obsessed with texting in a really strange and uncomfortable way even when lucid. They have a very large social group and an even larger work network so it's not really practical to send out a group text saying 'ignore messages from this number', and also I think the parent would feel humiliated if they were well.

Taking the phone away doesn't work as this causes anger and aggression as well as a feeling of loss of control, which is bad enough from their illness that I don't want to make it worse. They are a very alpha personality.

I am looking for suggestions on how to tactfully control phone usage without the parent necessarily realizing it. Their phone is a Samsung Galaxy smartphone running Android. Are there any apps which would do it? Any techniques you used to manage this or similar issues with a sick family member? Obvious solutions that I'm missing out of lack of sleep?

The parent uses SMS texting, phone calls and Whatsapp.
posted by sockofdreams to Human Relations (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
So you want to give them a phone that has all the appearance of being fully functional but that isn't? I don't think that's possible. You'll have to put on parental controls with an app like kytetime that lets you monitor usage and restrict certain applications.
posted by empath at 1:36 AM on November 3, 2013

Not much of an answer, but might help:
If you're not aware, the SMS texting and phone call functions aren't part of Android, they're apps. Ok, they probably came pre-loaded, but there are hundreds of SMS apps and phone call apps that could be used, including ones intending to help with drunk-txt'ing, ones intended to be kid-safe with parental controls, etc.

If the parent is aware/remembers/accepts that there have been lapses of judgement, then they might be receptive to adding some flavor of drunk-texting protections to their phone - it can presented as a normal thing that normal adults do (because it is and they do) and as the parent retaining full control over their phone, just sagely deciding to require a delayed proof-reading step so they know they'll present themselves at their professional best, or whatever other drunk-txt solution is most useful.

Alternatively, for more clandestine powers of intervention I guess "parental controls" is probably the search word.
posted by anonymisc at 1:45 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Could you replace the numbers in their contact list with the number to your phone or a burner phone (while retaining the same contact names)?

It'll look like your parent has all the same contacts in his phone, and his calls/texts will go through....but they'll just all go through to your number (or, I would recommend, the burner phone's number) instead of the person labeled as the contact.
posted by rue72 at 1:45 AM on November 3, 2013 [12 favorites]

I was thinking the same thing as rue72. But then you wouldn't know who your parent was trying to reach if they sent a legitimate text and wanted an answer.
Depending on how much they text it would also be a lot of work.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:45 AM on November 3, 2013

It might actually be dangerous, if the person is in trouble and needs to reach out to someone, thinks that they are, and actually aren't.
posted by empath at 3:48 AM on November 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

I also agree that paring down their contact list should be part of the solution.

Is this a disease that everyone knows about? Is it the kind of thing that might be embarrassing to you, but not to the recipients?

Lastly, assuming they have a physician like a neurologist or phychiatrist helping them manage their disease, maybe that person knows of a solution that is least distressing to patients with that disease.
posted by gjc at 4:01 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been through this type of dementia with both my grandmother and my father, and this stage where the people close to them know they are impaired but others don't - or don't realize how impaired they are - is a tough one.

My family knew for a long time that my dad shouldn't be driving, for example, but my mom - who we felt had the final authority for him - was unwilling to confront him with his impairment almost until the end of his life. It's a form of denial, and it's particularly prevalent in the World War II generation. It was easier for us than it would be for you, though, since my dad's general personality was pretty laid-back and compliant. My dad finally drove somewhere on an errand and then couldn't remember where he was or how to get back home, and that was the trigger for my mom that this couldn't go on any longer. (Never mind that their adult children had been telling her that for over a year, mind you!) It just took her far longer to accept that than we were comfortable with. She called his doctor and had his doctor tell him "no more driving" at a specially-arranged doctor visit.

The delicate balance between maintaining safety for the person impaired (and others) and allowing them and their life partner to maintain their self-respect and independence has been a sensitive journey for my siblings and I. In hindsight (my dad passed away this year), we've been glad that we made the choice to remain sensitive to my mom and dad's feelings and choices and to support them in maintaining their independence.

This might have gone down much differently had my mom (who is elderly but fully cognizant and capable of making sound decisions) not been alive. In that case, I think we would have called a family meeting at a time when my dad seemed cognizant (and yes, they do have periods where they are temporarily more mentally clear) and said, "Look Dad, here's the deal - we love you and we see that you're not always thinking clearly. We want you to be safe (or in your situation, we know you don't want to do things that you would be embarrassed about if you were thinking rationally), so here's what we think we need to do about this: ..."

This is a difficult and character-building experience, and I wish you wisdom and patience. It will be us one day, so use the experience to talk to your children and those around you about how you hope they'll handle it when/if the time comes.
posted by summerstorm at 6:54 AM on November 3, 2013

Best answer: I think your best option (within the restraints you are requesting) is to go for a parental control app, which can lock down available apps and activities. Family members use kytephone for their children, but I can't speak to how reliable or safe it really is.

Now to get to the real heart of the matter: you seem very reluctant to step in and do what you know is best. The obvious solution here is just to take the phone away entirely... after all, your only other options are to leave it untouched (causing continued embarrassment, or even danger), or to make your parent feel like a child with a control app.

Dealing with helping elderly parents who are losing their faculties sucks. I know first-hand, especially if there's that "alpha" dynamic you're talking about. But at some point, in order to preserve some quality of life for you and for the parent, you'll have to start stepping in and putting your foot down when changes must happen.

Cautionary tale for you: my grandparents, who were lovely people, both insisted on maintaining their life as-is when they began to lose their faculties.

Here is what my uncle and mother dealt with in their last years:
  • Grandparents refused to give up their car or drivers' licenses, despite the fact that their driving was getting dangerous. My grandpa finally had his taken away by the state after being pulled over multiple times for dangerous driving.
  • Grandparents refused to move out of their house, which was not wheelchair friendly and was too large to keep up. The house fell apart despite the family's best efforts to chip in and take care of it.
  • Grandparents were too stubborn to hire an in-home nurse, meaning that my uncle and mother ended up spending far too much time providing that kind of care (and in turn, neglecting taking care of their own kids' needs).
In each case my uncle and mother never put their foot down. The end result was lots of unnecessary frustration, embarrassment, and flat out danger for all parties. And the worst part, frankly, was that due to the wonders of modern medicine, all of this frustration dragged out over the span of ten years.

Unless you start stepping in and saying "this is how it's going to be, and it's in your own best interest," then prepare to deal with the same challenges that my mother and aunt dealt with. I know how hard it is, but this is the pep talk you need... and taking the phone away now during a time of temporary trouble (so long as the parent still has a land line for emergencies) is a way for you to set the tone for the future.
posted by Old Man McKay at 6:59 AM on November 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

Hmm, technologically this is feasible - what you need is some sort of VPN-based system which would allow him to do all his stuff and allow you to "throttle" his usage and inidividually approve/disapprove various actions.
posted by arnicae at 7:31 AM on November 3, 2013

Also - we pushed my Grandma to give up driving and move into an assisted living facility. I regret this more than anything else in my life. She lost something intrinsic to who she was, the feisty, fiercely intelligence, incredibly independent when she moved to a senior living facility. She wasn't like any of those other old people. She didn't have anything in common with them. A solitary woman, after living alone for 30 years for the first time she was lonely once she was living in a (nice, very well run, attractive, fun) facility in her own apartment with others.

I have always been a person who didn't have regrets - but now I have one. If I could go back in time, I would find someone to move in with Grandma (probably a live-in caregiver 100% of the time and a family member, likely me, about 50% of the time) to allow her to have the flexibility she needed to stay in her home and be the dingbat, zany Grandmother I adored.

I'd do anything to have that chance. That doesn't make the choices you're faced with any easier - but I really appreciate the fact that you're trying to maintain your family member's sense of independence.
posted by arnicae at 7:36 AM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think this partly depends on the home situation. Are they living with family members/have in-home help that would be willing to monitor their phone usage and curtail when necessary? When my father was failing mentally we could discuss things during lucid moments and then remind him, "We've talked about this and we need to do such and such." So in this case, "I know you want to use the phone right now but we agreed to not call people after 10 o'clock (or not send messages to big groups, or whatever)." If they live alone you have another issue.
posted by BibiRose at 7:58 AM on November 3, 2013

Also - we pushed my Grandma to give up driving and move into an assisted living facility. I regret this more than anything else in my life. She lost something intrinsic to who she was, the feisty, fiercely intelligence, incredibly independent when she moved to a senior living facility.

Just to add a point of contrast, my great grandmother had the complete opposite experience with assisted living. Suddenly being around people from (approximately) her own generation made her much, much happier than living with family members had. So the result really varies by person (and facility, one presumes).
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:10 AM on November 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have no actual app suggestions but try asking around for a solution that would let you (or whoever) authorize individual smses. So: he sends "where's my damned pizza" to contact person "Dentist", and you just deny and it's never sent (he always sees it as sent of course). "I've a pain in my jaw, can you get me an appointment", you authorise.
posted by Iteki at 8:50 AM on November 3, 2013

Could you just switch it to airline mode, or would your parent realise and switch it back? That doesn't solve the problem of what happens if they genuinely need to contact someone, though.
posted by penguin pie at 9:18 AM on November 3, 2013

Replace the phone numbers with Time & Temperature, weather, or any other acceptable number, maybe even some that are out of service, or with a burner phone you carry. Do something similar for email addresses. Surely there's an app that will let you schedule a stream of cheery text messages. Sign them up for weather reports, local news, etc., so they have something to engage in/with. You might want to semi-anonymize their display names, so if they comment publicly on news stories, it's just Wilma, not Wilma Flintstone. Make sure 911, doctor's office, and family members are in the contact list, ideally set up for maximum names in the list, all people who will understand, and deal acceptably with unusual texts.
posted by theora55 at 11:31 AM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just wanted to add that I would strongly discourage you from tricking or fooling your parent by messing with their phone and changing around their contacts.

When someone has dementia or a similar mental condition that can cause confusion, the worst thing you can do is to confuse them further. Why trick someone who is already confused?

Two of my close family members have suffered from dementia. One was my grandfather, (who was a doctor and who was very aware of what was happening to him). It was incredibly frustrating for both of them. They both described it as having moments where they felt lucid and "normal," and moments where they felt like someone who has just suddenly and uncomfortably woken up from a nap- that feeling of being groggy, disconcerted, and confused... not being able to make connections, remember simple things, put words together, or understand things quickly, and in many cases, being well aware that something is not right. Everyone knows what that feeling is like... it's awfully frustrating, especially if you are trying to handle anything important, answer questions, make decisions, et cetera.

Dementia and other similar mental conditions are frustrating enough for someone who is suffering from them. Don't add on to the frustration.

Either take the phone away, or be direct and tell them that you are removing some of their apps and abilities because they have not been using them safely. Please don't trick your parent.
posted by Old Man McKay at 2:48 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I have marked as best answers those which reminded me that much as we hate the idea of discussing this with the parent and restricting their usage, that is the best way to help maintain their own independence while it's still possible, instead of hiding behind (faintly repellent) technological solutions. This situation is unfortunately unlikely to last long - my parent is suffering from a neurological condition which will cause death within months if not weeks. They have a spouse and children there to care for them full time and we will just have to be extra vigilant and forceful, against a lifetime's conditioning. I suppose that is what growing up means.
posted by sockofdreams at 8:06 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

my parent is suffering from a neurological condition which will cause death within months if not weeks

In that case, what is the concern over this behavior?

Sure, their professional reputation will be damaged, but death has a way of ending one's professional career.

The dentist has probably gotten some strange texts from patients before, or if they were to an office landline the dentist may be unaware of any pictures or texts being sent. Worst case, the dentist won't take them as a patient.

Hostile inlaws are already hostile, so it's not as though the relationship would be ruined.

What problem is being caused by these texts and calls?
posted by yohko at 4:46 PM on November 4, 2013

Sometimes it is tempting to focus on fixable problems, instead of those that have no solutions. That doesn't mean it's a good use of your time and energy right now.
posted by yohko at 4:49 PM on November 4, 2013

Response by poster: yohko, I understand what you're saying, and it's something we've discussed. We feel however, that our parent would be humiliated if they were capable of understanding this, and while they probably never will be, it is a priority for us to prevent this. It's on par, as far as we're concerned, with stripping someone with advanced dementia - or someone's dead body - naked in public: they might not care now or after death, but if they were in possession of their faculties, they would hate it. We feel it's the family's duty to protect an individual's dignity as they would like to have it protected, whether they are alive, dead or suffering from dementia.
posted by sockofdreams at 12:04 AM on November 5, 2013

That's a difficult situation. You might want to think of it similarly to how you would if you had to prevent someone from driving -- they want the freedom and independence, and it is a blow to them to lose it, but if you know they shouldn't be doing it it has to go.

I don't know what software is out there that would be helpful, it sounds like the best thing to do might be to let them know you've turned off texting and other things on the phone (except perhaps for certain numbers, if that's possible), but let them continue to have the phone available if they were using it for other things that don't involve contacting others. Another possibility would be to have them use a phone that can run any apps they want which wouldn't be problematic, set up with some sort of a very limited parental control plan, and have the original phone available for someone to keep an eye on any incoming calls or texts and communicate with people on their behalf.

It seems likely they have someone around to help care for them at least part of the day, if there is someone who can assist with sending the messages they want this might help give them some independence in a way. This would probably need to be someone with knowledge of their family dynamics and personal network, so they could keep an eye out for any inappropriate messages.

It sounds like they intended to send out messages to certain people who never received them, and that most of the messages would have been appropriate if they reached those they were meant to reach, but the dentist got them instead.

Try to emphasize the good things about this change to them, how the caregiver or helper can make sure they get the messages to the people they want to talk to, rather than preventing embarrassment. The parent might be able to write out or type the messages on another device, or if there is an app that would require a password or something to send the message they could do it on their own phone. You might call the helper, even if that's you, a "personal assistant" or "personal secretary", whatever would appeal to them -- maybe there's a phrase from the industry they were in that would help them think of it as a "prestigious" sort of thing on some level, even while they are aware on another level it's something they are losing.
posted by yohko at 8:48 PM on November 5, 2013

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