Computing for those with short-term memory problems?
November 15, 2006 12:33 AM   Subscribe

Help me help my father: My father is elderly and has problems with his short-term memory. He wants to use a word processor to write about things that interest him, but he forgets fairly basic application techniques, such as how to save, open and create new documents.

I'm trying to think of ways to help him that don't mean having to write a 300 page book of instructions aimed specifically for his needs (but if it comes to that, I'll do it). One thought I had was recording animated help files of basic procedures, so he can refresh his memory at each editing / writing session. Another thought I had was installing a portable version of and removing any icons / extraneous visual elements I can to make the interface as simple for him as possible. I'm looking for advice from any others who have given this some thought - any help will be very appreciated. Also, if you have any other advice on how I can make my father's computing experience as painless as possible (eg, software recommendations that would allow me to attach to their computer across the internet and manipulate whatever application is causing concern / distress - extra karmic points for free alternatives) , I'd appreciate hearing about those as well. Both PCs (mine and my parents') are WinXP SP2.
posted by planetthoughtful to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I know this may sound crazy, but why not use what he may be more familiar with (eg. pen and paper or a typewriter) and then hire someone, such as a starving student, to type it into a doc file?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:36 AM on November 15, 2006

If it's a case of remembering how to open a document, save, etc., and not when or why he needs to do it, then either a very simple keystroke chart or labels directly on keys could do the trick. Many of the important WP functions have their two-keystroke equivalent, and some have a single function key alternative. You could label these directly.

Or what Pollomacho said, though I know in my own dad's case, he really enjoys the word processor though it frustrates him mightily.
posted by dreamsign at 12:44 AM on November 15, 2006

Response by poster: No, not crazy - I've also considered the idea of buying him a voice recorder (or, more probably, one of those 'old fashioned' tape player / recorders, since they'd be simplest to operate) and offering to transcribe anything he records. Unfortunately, he's retired (not the unfortunate part), and has more hours available for recording than I have available for transcription. Also, I'm not sure a solution where there was an ongoing cost, even a minimal one, would be ideal. But it's that kind of, 'Hey, did you think of...' answer that will probably lead me to a workable solution, so thanks all the same!
posted by planetthoughtful at 12:45 AM on November 15, 2006

Maybe someone will have a clever high-tech fix, but if he's consistently able to follow written instructions, I would say that's the way to go. Just clear written instructions, on paper, for the simple common tasks. Plus screen-shots if you can manage them, but mainly focus on making the written instructions clear on their own. If navigating the computer doesn't come naturally to him, in-computer help is going to be less helpful than it would be to you or me.

Fasten these instructions to something, so they don't "walk away" from the computer. Eg, attach to a long string and staple one end of the string to a corkboard over the desk. You can print a spare copy if he wants to walk around with them.

You can go into his software and set all the preferences/options/etc to the least obtrustive options. (E.g., it shouldn't auto-correct his spellings, he has to tell it to spell-check; it shouldn't autoformat in any way.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:47 AM on November 15, 2006

Response by poster: @dreamsign: I think you nailed it on the head - I think my father will enjoy using a word processor. It's not a new concept to him - he used WordPerfect (5.1?) very well back in the days of DOS; it's just that he doesn't retain these technical details very well anymore. If I wasn't certain that he would want to be able to easily add to documents, I'd actually probably suggest an electric typewriter to him, with the same offer to type / scan anything he wanted in electronic form (insert 'Letter To The Editor' here) for him. But, his old system (which we sadly lost due to hardware failure) contained hundreds of files, and he lost heart for a couple of years after that. Coming back to it now, he finds he simply can't remember how to use the application.
posted by planetthoughtful at 12:50 AM on November 15, 2006

At some small security risk, you could set up Remote Desktop or even Remote Desktop Web Connection on your Dad's machine. And unless he's married to Microsoft Word, which is way too much application for most people wanting to write (because it can't decide if it's a word processor, a Web development framework, or a desktop publishing application), he's far better off with a lighter weight, but more functional word processor like Nisus Writer, AbiWord, or even Writely (now Google Docs).
posted by paulsc at 1:00 AM on November 15, 2006

Recording it may work. Even if you don't have time to transcribe the recordings, you could store them in MP3 format until time permits. Voice recognition will only get better, and there will likely be a day when you'll be able to feed a ton of mp3s into a program and have a good transcription come out the other end.

My keyboard (logitech s510) has little unobtrusive ^save ^copy etc. markings on the bottom sides of its buttons (S, C, and so on). That might help a tiny bit.
posted by alexei at 1:02 AM on November 15, 2006

TightVNC is one way to go for remote controlling (and it's free).

My keyboard (Genius-KL0210) also has the little markings that alexei's has, with a little diamond shape next to the instruction and a corresponding diamond on the control key. It also has a button labelled 'Word' which will fire up Word (natch) when pressed. Bugs the hell out of me when I hit it by accident, but might be handy for your dad.

Other than that I second a simpler word processor.
posted by corvine at 5:20 AM on November 15, 2006

If you are using Word, customize the toolbar so there are only a few icons, the one he needs.

Then, talk him through it, to understand why the icons are pictures of what they are.

"OK, we need a new page for the next story, right? So, what do you do to start a new story?"
"Get a fresh sheet of paper."
"Exactly! So, look at the pictures, which one is the new sheet of paper?"

"When that story is done, time to put it away, we need to put it on the disk, right? Where is the picture of the disk?"

Maybe making these logical connections will help him? Then he doesn't need to remember the procedures, just the logic behind what the little buttons mean.

Just an idea, hope it might help.
posted by Brave New Meatbomb at 5:47 AM on November 15, 2006

How about this?

--Clear his desktop to the bare minimum of icons
--Pre-create word .docs and put them on his desktop.
--Label them 'Friends', 'Family', 'Business', 'The Cabin', etc.

--He can read the titles, so that shouldn't confuse him.
--If he can remember to d-click, then he can open them.

--Create a Word macro to save the current doc
--Put a green sticker on the key that operates this macro

--Create a Word macro that saves & closes the current doc
--Put a red sticker on this macro key

--Green means Go (on). Red means Stop (writing)

paulsc's Remote Desktop suggestion will definitely be very helpful to you.
posted by w_boodle at 5:47 AM on November 15, 2006

Just set up a profile for him on a computer and on the desktop place only one icon for the document which he continues to add onto. Then once he follows the instructions for turning on the computer and logging in he just needs to click the document to get started. Why give him the added tasks of creating new documents? Keep it simple.
posted by JJ86 at 5:49 AM on November 15, 2006

How about encouraging him to use Notepad over Word? No clutter, not much to learn and it'll prompt him to save when he goes to close. Formatting etc can be done in bulk later if necessary.

If he can't type well, however, using a word processor of any type is going to be way more frustrating then pen and paper - imagine hunt and peck multiplied by a million.

Anyway, back to notepad. Set the icon to the centre of the screen, provide him with simple instructions taped to his desk (in large print? laminated?)

1. to open, double click Notepad box
2. put your cursor where you want to type.
3. type.
4. save (ctrl S?) your document.
5. close by clicking on X in right hand corner.
posted by b33j at 5:51 AM on November 15, 2006

You could write down the shortcut key combos (eg, ctrl v for paste) and tape them to the monitor. I use something similar for my retail software at work, and new staff rarely have a hassle navigating it. For more complex things, like opening documents, set his defaults to save to a folder prominently displayed on the desktop, so he only has to click on the folder to get to them. Name it something obvious, like "click here for existing documents", or somesuch.
posted by Jilder at 5:56 AM on November 15, 2006

I agree with b33j. If there's no reason for him to use Word (99% of the functionality of which he will never use) then just use Notepad or some other simple text editor. You can format it for him later if required.
posted by PenDevil at 6:16 AM on November 15, 2006

If he knows how to use WordPerfect (I'm assuming his long-term memory is still OK), why give him some new program to use?

Seems like you could get an old copy of WordPerfect for DOS, and run it in a virtual machine. If you fullscreened it, it would make his brand-new Dell look like a (really, really fast) 286. If he's like a lot of older folks that I know, five minutes of looking at that, and his old skills will come back.

Just be sure to back up the VM's hard disk image a lot (like, every night, automatically) so that he doesn't lose any work, and I think that would do it. You could handle pulling the WP files off of the VM's hard drive and printing them when he wanted.

Basically it's just giving him what he's familiar with, and can use without training.

Alternately, the other suggestion I was going to make was something like Google Docs. Make a shortcut that he can click on to open it, and then all he has to do is pick from the list of documents to open and edit them. Pretty simple, and it saves every few seconds automatically. Even if he totally hoses his workstation, nothing will get lost. Plus it's easy for you to access the documents and print them for him.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:53 AM on November 15, 2006

I suggest you get rid of toolbar icons altogether.
Create a single custom toolbar that has the word for the command instead of the icon.
In Word (mine is 2002), you can do this by choosing Tools -> Customize...
To change icons to words, keep the Customize window showing, and right-click on an icon you want to convert. There should be an option like "Text Only (Always)". Choose that option. Drag all non-important icons away so they are taken off the toolbar.
Voila! Simple, all-text toolbar!
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 7:05 AM on November 15, 2006

I third Google Docs.
It's stripped down and simple. Clean, and with few commands. And docs autosave, so if he forgets, it's OK. And you could access it remotely and find or fix or retitle anything. The lists of saved documents is a simple alphabetized list, which shows how long ago each document was edited. No confusing Windows file structure to navigate.

To make it even easier, you could set his homepage to Google Docs and put a shortcut for his browser in his Startup folder. That way when he turns on his computer, this thing loads automatically for him. Turn on computer, start typing.
posted by kookoobirdz at 7:20 AM on November 15, 2006

Google Desktop. Get rid of everything but Scratch Pad. Don't Auto-Hide, change font size, keep always on top. Stretch size to take up half the screen. Instant Notepad that automatically saves everything that's typed in it. Plus since Google Desktop caches everything, any accidental deletion should be retrievable.

Not sure of limitation of Scratch Pad, but perhaps you could (through VNC suggested above) copy and paste for him regularly.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 7:46 AM on November 15, 2006

I have a MS keyboard which has "functions" printed above the F-keys: help, undo, redo, new, open, close, reply, forward, send, spell, save and print. Maybe having these labeled keys would help?
posted by tremolo1970 at 8:43 AM on November 15, 2006

Example MS keyboard. Scroll down for pics
posted by tremolo1970 at 8:50 AM on November 15, 2006

If he can speak clearly, you could also have the computer do the dictation. Dragon Dictate* was pretty good when I used it some 8 years ago. You can dictate text and have the cursor navigate by voice command. I can only imagine that it's improved.

Also, this might be a little expensive, but Adobe Captivate (nee Macromedia) can be used to make little video "reminders" of how to perform certain tasks.

*Well, it seems Dragon Dictate absorbed its rival, Natually Speaking.
posted by lysdexic at 9:39 AM on November 15, 2006

I'm not a fan of Word. It really is too complicated for what most people want to do.

The google Docs suggestion is interesting. However, now you have to deal with teaching him how to connect to the internet and debugging his connection. So, I don't know if that simplifies things.

On the mac, there is a freaky little notepad called Notational Velocity which is basically a notepad with a super-minimal interface. There is no saving (it's automatic), no filenaming, just a neat way to search, edit and create notes. I love it and have used it for years.

For windows, you might find that a personal wiki is the way to go e.g. connectedtext or wikiPad. I haven't used them, but they could be used offline, and since you stay in the application (i.e. you open it, and you're looking at the wiki) you don't need to deal with file explorer, or folders or filenames. And you can a nice overview of all the content.

I'm curious to hear how it goes!

on preview: forget dictation unless he's paralyzed and there is no way for him to control a computer with his hands. It's painful.
posted by kamelhoecker at 9:41 AM on November 15, 2006

Also, repetition or a simple manual might help. I occasionally tutor an 80+ year old retired professor on his computer. For the first year or so I'd get repeat questions until he had it down pat. Then he moved on to more complex concepts, with less repetition. He still asks me to help set bookmarks correctly and clean up his desktop of unused items.
posted by lysdexic at 9:42 AM on November 15, 2006

Why not a piece of paper with the commands written on it, taped to the monitor, wall, or desk like LobsterMitten and beej suggested? I also feel that the Google Docs or Notepad are better than Word for your situation by far.

I think the remote connection thing is a little overblown for merely saving and opening, etc. text files, isn't it? Unless he's having more complicated problems as well.
posted by dozo at 9:57 AM on November 15, 2006

I like Kadin2048's suggestion. I run WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS in a full-screen DOS window (no virtual machine necessary) and it makes me happy.
posted by Eater at 10:47 AM on November 15, 2006

I had exactly this problem when my 76 year old father decided that he needed to learn how to use the internet. His memory sounds pretty much like planetthoughtfuls dad. This is a memory problem, not a "ohmygosh this is too complicated" problem.

What I ended up doing was sitting down and talking with him to see exactly what he wanted to do (in his case, send email, browse the web and type letters to print and post). I then made a customised step-by-step manual with screen shots (not as hard as you think) to help him run through it. Then I sat him down and made him go through each process with the manual as a prompt to see if I'd left anything out. He's using Outlook, IE and Word, mostly because that's what I had loaded on my old PC.

Now, he's pretty much doing this without a single problem and doesn't refer to the manual at all anymore, mostly because he's had enough simple repetition to overcome any short-term memory problems. He's also gained confidence which is another aspect. I no longer get panicky phonecalls every other evening going "The computer went "beep" - what did I do?"

He's managed to track down a pile of long-lost relatives in Canada and is now taking his own photos, downloading them and sending them off to people. I have officially certified him as knowing enough to be dangerous. He thinks that's a hoot.
posted by ninazer0 at 3:22 PM on November 15, 2006

The simplest writing software I use on the mac is called WriteRoom. It saves automatically, you run the software and your document is just there. I see on their webpage that there's a windows alternative called DarkRoom. You might want to check it out.
posted by dhruva at 7:26 PM on November 15, 2006

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