Cell phones for luddites
November 5, 2006 7:12 PM   Subscribe

Please help me find pre-paid cell phones for my aunts.

After much consideration and discussion, my aunts (all in their 70's) have agreed to allow me to buy them pre-paid cell phones for Christmas. There's one MAJOR catch - My aunts are very much techno-phobes.

To give you examples of the extents of their techno-phobia, of the three: none have cable TV, one has a remote-controlled TV, one has been online, one owns a car, none own cordless phones, none have answering machines, one still owns and uses a BetaMax, none have standard VCRs, let alone DVD players. The two who have not been online actively fear the internet, despite my best efforts to encourage them to explore the web.

Needless to say, I need a completely intuitive, feature-light cell phone for each of them. The easier it is to dial a number, the better. I anticipate that each of them will use the phone on a limited basis; they all have land-lines in their homes that they will use for regular conversations. It's my hope that they'll bring these phones along when they leave the house, in case of emergency or for quick questions. They all live on the south side of Chicago, and they walk most everywhere - grocery store, doctor visits, hairdresser, etc.

They are all very proud, and it means a lot for them to accept this gift from me. I want to make this as easy for them as possible, so they actually use the gift. My brother and I will be around on Christmas Day to teach them how to use it, but then he returns to Ohio, and I return to my house about 25 miles away. Despite the fact that I live relatively close, I only see them about six times a year, so I'd like to be able to teach them everything in a few hours on Christmas Day.

So, my question is two-fold:

1) I need recommendations for a good pre-paid cell phone PLAN in Chicago.
2) I need recommendations for a feature-light, easy-to-use (and easy-to-learn) cell PHONE to purchase along with the cell phone plan.

Any assistance is very, very appreciated. Thank you all!
posted by MeetMegan to Technology (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about the plan, but for a phone, consider the Jitterbug. If I didn't already have a cheap Cingular GoPhone, I'd look at this for my middle-aged self.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:16 PM on November 5, 2006

Best answer: Not really aimed at older folks, but it'd be hard to beat Virgin Mobile's prices. If they use it very little, it'll be around $20 for three months' service.
posted by MegoSteve at 7:23 PM on November 5, 2006

I am in your aunt's age range. Cell phones can be convenient but many of us find them to be a total nusance. I use a Trac-fone. It is perfect for the few calls that I make and I have it if there is an emergency while out of the home. And you can buy subscriptions for a varitety of time-periods. I is JUST a phone. No extra nonsence.
posted by JayRwv at 7:26 PM on November 5, 2006

I think the jitterbug phones are made for people just like your aunts. It's simple with large buttons and an easy-to-read screen. You can sign up for a monthly or annual plan. 60 anytime minutes for only $20/monthly. The website doesn't tell you how much the phone is, you have to call to get that privileged information, evidently.

On preview: Damn you, Robert Angelo.
posted by viachicago at 7:27 PM on November 5, 2006

Give it a shot, but be aware that it may not 'take'. My grandmother - in her 80s - has a cellphone that is primarily for emergencies, in theory. I think she may have called us once or twice on it, even, but because she's not in the habit of using it, she often leaves it at home, it isn't charged, etc. It's not an easy habit to acquire, I guess.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 7:30 PM on November 5, 2006

I second Virgin Mobile. They have quite a selection of under < $30 phones.br>
You can get hands-on with several of the brands of pre-paid phone at Target.
posted by smackfu at 7:32 PM on November 5, 2006

I have one of the Virgin Mobile phones (the Shorty, pictured on their page linked above). It is very easy to use, and has no moving parts to break.

You can set it up for them so it's always on vibrate, which means they never have to worry about knowing how to turn the ringer on and off. They can also just keep the phone off most of the time, and only turn it on when they need to call out.

The way the service works is: they give you a phone number. You deposit $20 into your account with them every 90 days (even if you haven't used up all the previous money), and your service stays active. If you stop paying, the service just stops working and if they want to, they can give your number to someone else. If you have used up all your paid-for minutes, the phone says something like "You have used up your minutes. Would you like to Top Up?" And if you press a button it will call Virgin and you can add more money if you give them a PIN. You can also add more money from another phone, if you have the PIN. It sounds like it would be best if you handle this, although you can explain to your aunts what to do if the situation comes up.

They send email reminders when you need to "top up" your service. The emails have a very annoying fake street hip "Yo dudez" tone to them; you should arrange to handle them rather than getting your aunts involved.

You could give them a simple printed "cheat sheet" of which buttons to press in which sequence to accomplish common tasks. You can also program numbers into the address book for them.

It comes with a voicemail service, which is a number you have to dial to check whether you have messages. (Obviously the number can be programmed in, and you can set up the voicemail so that you don't need to enter a PIN.) You could set it up so that the message on the voicemail just says "You have reached my cellphone. I don't ever check the messages here, so if you need to get in touch with me, please try later or leave a message at my home phone number," and then they don't have to worry about it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:45 PM on November 5, 2006

Another vote for Virgin Mobile. It's what I got my technophobe mom to keep on hand for emergencies and it works great for her. I paid $25 for the phone which included $20 airtime (3 months if used sparingly) and then pay $15 every 3 months to keep it active.

One hint: Make sure your aunts call you once a week or they'll forget how to use it if they're like my mum.
posted by buggzzee23 at 7:48 PM on November 5, 2006

In my experience with trying ti teach my grandparents how to use mobile phones, the cheapest Nokia that you can get your hands on is possibly a good bet. It will generally have one button to call/hang up and pressing the down scroll button will find the number. Set it to large text menu and they should pick it up fairly quickly.
posted by cholly at 7:49 PM on November 5, 2006

The Jitterbug links above aren't working for me. Here is another one. It looks like Jitterbug might be exactly the thing you're after. Their phones look simpler to use than mine.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:53 PM on November 5, 2006

I would third the suggestion of the Virgin Mobile "Shorty" model. Topping up is even easier than Lobstermitten describes, as you can set it up to automatically suck top-ups from your bank account when needed, with no intervention required.

The "Shorty" model is as cholly recommends, the cheapest, most basic Nokia model available; short on unnecessary features, long on battery life, and easy to use. The interface is intuitive, with a minimum number of key-presses required for any task.
posted by nowonmai at 8:01 PM on November 5, 2006

tracfone customer service made me pull my hair out when I tried to use a gift card to reload the minutes.

I have a cingular gophone now. very, very easy in comparison to re-load the minutes.
posted by cda at 8:01 PM on November 5, 2006

Response by poster: To clarify, my aunts will never have to reload/reup minutes themselves. I plan on handling everything from that end (including bills).

I checked out the Jitterbug site and the phone seems very intuitive, but the service plans are a bit of a rip-off compared to what I see on Virgin Mobile. The phone I saw that looks easiest to use on Virgin Mobile is the Oystr. Does anyone have that phone? Is it as easy-to-use as I think it is? I am concerned about the web browsing feature...I don't want them to push the wrong button and get stuck on the web! The Shorty looks nice, LobsterMittens, but my aunts are losing their eyesight. The single row keys will be difficult for them to use.

Please keep the suggestions coming. I am really grateful for your help!
posted by MeetMegan at 8:07 PM on November 5, 2006

When my parents got cellphones, my Dad printed up white labels to put on the back of each phone with important phone numbers. You could do this if the phone you pick has enough surface area on the back. Then they only have to learn to turn it on, dial, press green button, press red button for hang-up, turn phone off.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:10 PM on November 5, 2006

Yes, the buttons on the Shorty are small and hard to read.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:11 PM on November 5, 2006

Although, if you program in all the numbers they will need, and also dial those numbers once from the phone, they may never need to use the numeric keypad. Once the phone is on, just hitting the down button (or the up button? I can't remember) will scroll you through the list of recent calls you have made. When you find the number you want you press the green button.

The display and the keypad of the Shorty light up when the phone is first turned on, and when you're pressing any buttons.

The type as displayed on the screen is 2.5 mm high.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:22 PM on November 5, 2006

If you have a Target nearby, they have several of the Virgin Mobile phones on display. I think that Oystr one looks really plasticky and cheap in person.

The web site has a special on the K10 Royale that's interesting.
posted by MegoSteve at 9:01 PM on November 5, 2006

Your challenge is not just to hand them the equipment and hope it will make sense, as you know -- you should probably design the entire experience of their introduction to this technology.

I'd see if you can figure out a way to talk about the phones, using the phones, turning them on and off -- before you even hand them the physical devices, before the devices even arrive. Maybe holding something with that "alien" shape (to them it will be alien) will cause an automatic sense of alienation in them, induce anxiety, and reduce the chances of their really connecting with it. If you can somehow make the devices seem familiar before they are faced with the odd plastic reality of them, they may be able to connect with the phones themselves much more successfully.

This probably sounds strange, but how about just picking two or three procedures - answering the phone, making a call, hanging up - then going over them verbally starting several days before the physical introduction? Start with just one procedure (maybe making a call), reciting the sequence of events (make a poem?), e-mailing, whatever will work best for your aunts. I don't know -- does this sound like it would be too patronizing? You can mitigate that since you know them.

I'd definitely cover answering well in advance; having the phone ring (vibrate) and not being able to find the button could induce some real panic, embarrassment, and disappointment. Hanging up would be similarly important.
posted by amtho at 9:09 PM on November 5, 2006

Response by poster: Amtho, as I mentioned above, I will be personally there to give them the phones and teach them how to use it. No worries there, I will make sure they know how to do everything before I leave them to fend for themselves.
posted by MeetMegan at 6:01 AM on November 6, 2006

Make sure you get a flip-style phone, because I'm sure the keylock will frustrate them otherwise, either running out all their minutes which they'll never repurchase, or keeping them from being able to just start dialing, in which case they'll give up and put it in a drawer. It's still a good chance that's what's going to happen, but still...

I also like the idea of putting a sticker with important numbers on the phone itself, because I wouldn't expect them to ever program in a number, and they'll be more used to the idea of a written list.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:48 AM on November 6, 2006

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