Simple programmable cell phone for a confused older person?
August 4, 2021 6:17 AM   Subscribe

An older family member has reached the point where they cannot reliably use their cell phone. They live in a congregate setting which commonly restricts visiting due to covid precautions, so the phone is their only connection to family and friends much of the time. So I would like to replace their current phone with something that is easier to use. I've unsuccessfully spent a couple of days looking for a phone that will be easy enough for them to use reliably...

Currently they have a low-end samsung in Easy Mode. That has worked pretty well for a while, but they have a tendency to accidentally undo things that I set up for them like medication alarms and contacts. Lots of pocket-dialing, accidental video recording, and the like as well. But more importantly, they often fail to make and answer calls. This is no longer a solution.

The level of simplicity they need is: easier than a TV remote, which they are no longer able to reliably use, even with written instructions, even when those instructions are "Only press ON and OFF and the CHANNEL UP / DOWN buttons". I want the phone equivalent of a remote that eliminates all buttons other than those in the first place.

Ideally, this phone will be cellular (we already have a SIM and would like to avoid new landline service) that I can program ahead of time with contacts, and which has large, simple call / end call buttons, a way to scroll through contacts, and nothing else.

My search has been fruitless so far. There exist "picture dialing" phones, but even those have number buttons for dialing as well; plus the only ones I've found have been landlines. There exist SIM card accepting desktop phones, but those seem to universally have lots of buttons. Lively (nee Jitterbug) does not make the phone I am looking for, which makes me think maybe it simply doesn't exist. They seem to be in the business of making phones that mimic modern ones; I am looking for something with no such pretensions.

A phone that satisfies these requirements, but has a touchscreen, is not a full solution either -- I suspect much of the current struggle comes from inadvertent touches on the touchscreen.

A phone that satisfies these requirements but is landline rather than cellular is OK, just not my first choice.

Does such a thing exist?
posted by dbx to Technology (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Two options I know of - one is a jitterbug - very simplified phone for seniors - comes in a couple formats - simplified smart phone and even a flip phone version although I'm not sure if the latter still exists.

Another option is a Gizmo - this is a smart watch that pairs with a cell phone and can be programmed to auto answer and to do other very simplified things like voice calling a very few numbers. It also has GPS and can be used to track a person with dementia. This is an option that was recommended to me by a friend whose husband has advanced dementia - she calls him from the other room and it auto answers and he will respond - when he might not answer if she yelled from the other room. I haven't played with one but it comes highly recommended.
posted by leslies at 6:57 AM on August 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I also came to recommend Jitterbug/Lively, as my elderly relatives have done very well with that, but I see you have ruled that out.

If the number pad is the issue, then I would recommend looking at cell phones aimed at young children - I seem to remember that there used to be several models which didn't have number pads and only allowed a restricted set of contacts, though it looks like most of those companies have folded. Maybe this KidsConnect model?
posted by mosst at 7:28 AM on August 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

To add to that - the FireFly phone was the kids' one I was thinking of, but it has been discontinued for a while and it doesn't appear that it works with most modern phone networks, unfortunately. You could still investigate whether it works with your network of choice, depending on where you're located.
posted by mosst at 7:32 AM on August 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Jitterbug / Lively phone worked poorly for my father, who suffered from dementia. Tapping a flat, glass surface was really un-intuitive for him. He found the user interface to be baffling. I would go with an old-fashioned landline phone, if at all possible.
posted by alex1965 at 7:51 AM on August 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Just to be clear - when you talked about ruling out the Lively phone - you were looking at the Lively flip phone, right? They also make a "smart" phone, but the flip one is the one I'm familiar with and very straightforward to use.
posted by mosst at 7:57 AM on August 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Your relative might be progressively losing awareness of what a cell phone is, and what they're supposed to do with it. What you describe with the remote control makes me think this might be the case; they can see the buttons, but their brain can't make the connection that the buttons correspond to changing the channels, even with written instructions. In that case, a more traditional phone will likely be easier to answer, but they still might not reliably call out. The only solution I've ever found to this is to call more often and hope they answer, unless staff are able to schedule time to help relative call out.

This photo-only phone would be my first pick. It will also make it easier for someone else to make a call for relative. There are devices to connect a cell phone to a landline and avoid landline service, but the place relative lives probably already has a phone line ready to be activated, and the headache of the extra line is probably smaller than the headache of dealing with a cell phone to landline dock.

Another direction to go could be an Echo or Echo Show with drop in enabled; this would let you call in and get an automatic answer, and could also take care of your medication reminders, etc. But there are privacy issues to consider there, if relative can't reliably reject your call if they don't want to talk/are indisposed. A landline for calls plus some sort of smart speaker for reminders would be my approach.
posted by assenav at 8:38 AM on August 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions so far.

I thought i made it pretty clear that Lively / Jitterbug is a big no. I am aware that they have multiple versions; I have spent a fair amount of time in this search and they were the first place I looked.

assenav, the phone you link appears to require a button combo to use the picture dialing unfortunately, which means I think it is too complicated. There is a similar phone with the two pads separated (amazon link) but it's still pretty complicated and requires a landline AND an internet connection.

I'm fully prepared to accept that the phone I describe doesn't exist, and these early answers aren't promising.
posted by dbx at 12:43 PM on August 4, 2021

How important are those medicine reminders and other things you've set up? I'm wondering if this RAZ Memory Phone, which doesn't appear to have a keypad, and can be controlled (from a distance, in an online portal) by you might work. Since all your relative has to do is click the face of the person being called, it seems more like what you're seeking. There's a video; you can skip to about a minute in. Users can't exit the home screen (where the contacts' faces/names appear). With no number buttons, this may at least guide you to say, "I want something like the RAZ Memory Phone, but with X [or, without Y]." Good luck.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 1:06 PM on August 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I know someone who used an Amazon Alexa in a similar setting. The parent could just say "Alexa, call Michael" and would it magically work. The family could also call the parent without the parent having to (1) hear the phone (2) find the phone (3) remember how to answer it (the current jitterbug flip phone requires you to push "ok" to answer a ringing call instead of just opening the phone)
posted by metahawk at 1:08 PM on August 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

One more idea: If they have WiFi, maybe you should just put in an Amazon Echo Show, which is also a video call platform. You just need Amazon Alexa app installed on the phone on the other end. Then he doesn't even need pictures... just say "Alexa, call Bob" and voila, call's connected.
posted by kschang at 1:10 PM on August 4, 2021

I don't have experience with them, but have you considered an alternative android launcher designed for seniors? If you Google "android launcher for seniors", you will find several articles with lists of options. You'll have to try them to see if one works better.

They can restrict interactions and what apps are available, large buttons, etc.
posted by TheAdamist at 2:00 PM on August 4, 2021

Response by poster: Again, thanks for all the suggestions, and yes I've considered (and rejected) touch-screen solutions. I've also considered Alexa et al, but they do not have wifi and I'd prefer not to set up a new service, as mentioned in the question.

As for the medication alarms, no those are not important, they have a nurse who does that for them now.
posted by dbx at 2:17 PM on August 4, 2021

Best answer: The picture phone has a setting to be one-touch, meaning they can hit the picture only, without needing a key combination. Just sharing for anyone else who might come upon the thread; I understand it still might not meet your needs!
posted by assenav at 2:20 PM on August 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm on my phone, so I can't look,but what about something like a bluetooth landline-style phone (kept plugged in to power) connected to a hidden, plugged-in cell phone. I found a few things when searching bluetooth rotary phone.

I would think that that format would be familiar and comforting, and more likely be be picked up when it rings.
posted by DebetEsse at 5:28 PM on August 4, 2021

Do you think they'd be comfortable with a landline? We've used a device like this: for a while now, and its worked out quite well. YMMV, of course. And you'd have ot set it up for them, which might not be possible with the covids.
posted by jaymzjulian at 9:39 PM on August 4, 2021

Do they have internet without wifi, or cable TV service from a company that provides internet phone? If so, any "landline" phone could be plugged into the modem, or into any wall jacks if the modem was plugged into another one. I understand not wanting to set up a new service, but if you're open to adding something to an existing service, that might work.

You can separate out medication alarms from the phone with reminder clocks.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 12:57 PM on August 5, 2021

You could probably set up Alexa to work with a cellular hotspot, which you could mount someplace where it would be hidden so no one would futz with it.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 3:09 PM on August 5, 2021

I've been looking for a phone with very similar characteristics to be a very basic emergency-only phone for my kids' use, and I agree it was far more difficult than I would have anticipated. In the end, I settled on this one: Alcatel GO FLIP 3. I wanted a dead simple interface limited to making calls to a few designated people, and absolutely zero frills or other functionality lest they abscond with it to watch YouTube and then lose it under their beds.

The description touts a lot of stuff about apps and voice control and other stuff, but in my experience with the phone so far, they are not particularly easy to get to, both intentionally or by accident (which is exactly what I wanted...and without wifi, they won't be able to activate them anyway). I put everyone they might ever need to reach under Contacts which is prominently displayed on the main screen, and you hit one button to enter it, scroll to the person you want, and hit OK to start the call. That's as few taps as I could configure.

Good luck with your search, I totally feel how frustrating it is!
posted by anderjen at 3:04 PM on August 9, 2021 [1 favorite]

« Older How do I clean my sofa?   |   Pivot Tables the Hard Way -- Filling A Row With... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.