Best video calling device for non-tech savvy seniors?
August 14, 2021 8:12 AM   Subscribe

My parents are not tech savvy at all and we're having increased problems video chatting. Best Facebook Portal/Google Home Hub/etc. device to use?

My parents live separately and are divorced, are in their 70s, and not tech savvy at all. I live halfway across the country from them and want my son to have regular video access to his grandparents and for me to have an easier way of video chatting with them. From where I'm sitting the easiest solution seems like Facebook Portal, Google Home Hub or a similar device. I'm happy to spend the $$ on buying it for them and my sibling said they're happy to set it up for them if it means easier video access.

Both parents are not tech savvy at all and are at a level (both have fallen for online scams, downloaded malware, etc) where I'd like to minimize risk exposure for them.

Quick details below:
Parent 1 lives on a fixed income, has vision and tremor issues and has a not-great broadband connection from Internet Essentials. Uses the internet on an older desktop computer w/ a webcam, doesn't have a smartphone. When they got a smartphone through the Lifeline program, they weren't able to use it due to accessibility issues and now they refuse to use any smartphone or tablet. A family member taught them to use Zoom; we use Zoom to video chat now but it's a difficult process where I call them on landline, ask them to Zoom, wait 15 minutes for them to navigate through Zoom and we chat then.

Parent 2 primarily accesses the internet through an iPad and an Android phone. Video chat is done exclusively through Facebook Messenger and there are lots of issues with Messenger calls only going to one device and not the other and with parent pointing camera at ceiling, accidentally muting themselves, etc. Parent has arthritis and has difficulty using phone/tablet at times.

What is the best device for them in terms of both ease of use and set it-and-forget it-ness?
posted by allthethings to Technology (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Echo Show 8, using either regular video calling or the Drop In and Announce features (as well as the emergency helpline, as partial substitute for LifeAlert etc).

I set my parents (and myself, remotely) up with this to help with all the household challenges arising from Parkinson's (mental and physical).

The idea was also for my parents to be able to videochat more easily with my nephews, as they have the Fire tablets made for kids, but that hasn't been explored yet as at their age my sister is still coordinating that, and she's not trying to learn something new right now.

Getting the most out of this (especially for assistive or safety purposes) involves blanketing your home(s) in them. Less so just for staying connected, but still if you want that Star Trek experience of it being everywhere (or are using it as a substitute for a LifeAlert wearable). And of course other family members have to be willing to have an Echo device or keep the Alexa app running.

The device ecosystem includes Echoes, Echo Shows and Echo Fire devices (tablets or the FireTV w/a USB webcam), and the iOS and Android apps. (Not sure about Echo calling or Drop In/Announce on an actual computer.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:31 AM on August 14, 2021 [3 favorites]

Note that this also makes it exceedingly easy to order stuff from Amazon, which may or may not be good.

Teaching my Dad how to use Amazon Music on Echo went a long way towards his buy-in as a lifelong technophobe (especially since he's now past managing a CD player, let alone being able to get LPs out of a floor level cabinet). The Show8 has good built-in sound, or if there's a stereo in the house you can use a dedicated Echo Dot with a y-cable and use the Show to manage what's playing. (If you do wind up getting more devices for more rooms, there's built in multiroom audio support.)

My Mom isn't loving the midnight Woodstock experience that now plays out downstairs, but that won't be a problem for your folks.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:10 AM on August 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

You could go straight for the Echo Show, or try a couple Echo Dots first. My dad has them all over the house and uses them to control light switches with the Smart Plug. I use the Dots as a backup system to talk to him when he loses his phone.

The downside is that you have to use the Alexa app from your phone, and it's a little clunky.

One tip: If your folks are hard of hearing, add a morning routine to set the volume to a high level.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:11 AM on August 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

an easier way of video chatting with them

Need a Show (or FireTV+ webcam setup) for video-chat. Dots work great for extending the intercom functions (including drop-in and announce) and other assistive features. (And old Dots go cheap.)

I'd think the selection here is between the 8 vs the 10 (the 5 is too small for primary video-chat use imo, it's an alarm clock form factor).

The 8 is meant to be on a nearby surface and faces diagonally up. The 10 is meant to be a little further away and the screen is vertical. (It also has better sound.)

You can get a stand for the 8 to adjust its orientation.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:31 AM on August 14, 2021

Personally? Amazon Echo Show series. You may need to buy the optional stand to stand them up properly. Just use voice to call any family member after you setup the contacts and such. Just need Alexa app on phone to take video calls on smartphone, IIRC.

For senior use you need the larger ones. I agree that the Echo Show 5 is a bit on the small side for senior use. I bought it as I mainly use it for voice control, but also want a screen for alt uses. Amazon had a sale recently where Echo Show 5 (2021 version) was down to $55, with similar deep discounts on Show 8.
posted by kschang at 10:37 AM on August 14, 2021

I concur---Echo Show would be by far the easiest. Through the years we have used nearly all the other video chat devices to view our growing family of grandchildren, and now we use the Show.
posted by ragtimepiano at 11:11 AM on August 14, 2021

Seconding Echo Show.

I've got a 5" I got for a song (by which I mean I mainly bought it because Amazon was throwing it a music package for a good long while, which practically paid for the hardware -- watch their Prime Day and Black Friday Deals especially), and my parents got the larger 8". The echo hardware varies, but with the multiple echo dots I have, plus this echo show, their voice-recognition stuff is pretty dang good when I'm a room or two away.

The main downside of the echo show is that its display is always busy, so take some time at setup to upload family photos to their amazon photos account so it has something to display, turn off a lot of the default geegaws that it flicks-past, sideshow fashion.

And then teach them how to ask it for music, the weather, sports, youtube, recipes, the hours of local businesses, movie listings, etc. You can turn off purchases in the app, and you can also turn off a lot of extraneous followup chatter from Alexa.

And most importantly, the volume buttons on top, the "turn off the microphone" button and what the screen shows when that happens, and tell them it's a machine, and it's their right as human beings to be as nice or rude to it as they want, so feel free to throw a towel over it, turn it to face a wall if you're tired of looking at it, or get as short and loud as necessary when giving commands like "Alexa shut up" when it mishears something and goes on some strange verbal excursion.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:27 AM on August 14, 2021 [2 favorites]

Any PC-based video chat will be fine if you set up TeamViewer (or similar) on their PC so that you can remotely get their end going each time.
posted by krisjohn at 4:20 PM on August 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

We did exactly that for over a year -- started each video call with a TeamViewer session to help the elder get their end started up.

Sadly, that slammed to a halt a couple months ago. TeamViewer recently started to lock out the thousands (if not millions!) of users who were using their free service for occasional family support. I'll link here to the latest page (of 307 pages) of a TeamViewer forum thread where literally thousands of people are basically posting the same thing.

We switched to Chrome Remote Desktop (to support our elder with a computer).

Anyway, remotely accessing their PC is probably far more complicated than the kind of solution they were looking for.
posted by intermod at 11:15 PM on August 14, 2021

Stay away from the Portal unless you're only in the Facebook ecosystem. On recommendation from a retirement home my brother bought one for my mom, and getting it to work with things like zoom is a real pain.
posted by Runes at 2:20 PM on August 15, 2021

Portal worked great for my family, including for some of the older less tech-savvy people.

It can take/make calls from another Portal device or to anyone using messenger on their computer or phone. It also supports joining zoom calls (though not as seamlessly as it does calls over Facebook messenger's network). I just say "Hey Portal, call X" and their device starts ringing. To answer you can either press the button on the screen or say "Hey Portal, answer call"

It also functions as an Alexa device, e.g. to play music, get the news, etc.
posted by vegetableagony at 12:27 PM on August 20, 2021

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