Phones for seniors

20 Nov 2015

As we cope with the tech and telco maelstrom that forms and transforms our digital personae, often we forget the maxim of architect Frank Lloyd Wright: "Form follows function."

Wright was an architect of buildings rather than semiconductors or networks, and designed a mile-high building in the 1950s that could have been built using the technology of the time. He was a visionary that believed in simplicity. Function, meet form.

Has this maxim been trampled in the dust by wild-eyed cyberpunks yowling about Moore's Law and waving their smartphones? Perhaps. But there's a growing demographic sector with specific needs from battery-powered handheld communication devices: our elderly population. Senior citizens, heads silver with wisdom, the people we'll eventually become.

So who makes THOSE phones? We hear much about aging populations, but not so much about what handsets are designed for that growing demographic. Here's a case where being "smart" means smart design, not bells and whistles.

Keep it simple, stupid
Because form follows function, let's first look at some basic design principles. Hopefully the wireless-charging systems conspicuous by their absence in 2015 will be commonplace by the time I'm ready for my senior phone, but at the moment, charging usually means cables and wires. Battery longevity is a plus – seniors won't be too obsessive about checking charge-percentages.

Eyesight is another issue, so a phone designed for elderly people doesn't sport a full keyboard designed for pin-sized fingers like a Blackberry, but rather a big number-pad organized like a typical phone-type phone. Touchscreen? Forget it. Rather, quick-and-easy emergency-buttons pre-dominate: the easier it is to send an "emergency beacon" signal to family, friends, and emergency medical services, the better (the message includes GPS coordinates).

Hearing-aid compatible, or amped-up bass for playing Clash of the Candy Crushing Birds, which is more apt? You get the idea.

Where to compare?
A recent article compares seven phones for seniors.

This 2012 article from The Register compares ten phones in the UK market.

If you need ten or more (that's the minimum order), Shenzhen's the place.

And of course, the ecosystem of Amazon dishes up a smorgasbord of phones you can have sent straight to Grandma (assuming she lives in the USA as Amazon retail increasingly seems to believe "Here Be Dragons" beyond the sea-to-shining-sea oasis):

For global grannies, a better bet might be Amazon UK.

The closest device
The phones-for-seniors are designed to be simple, but they're also light. This means they can be easily stashed in a pocket or even slung from a neck-lanyard. The idea is to keep the device close at hand, in case of emergency.

Neck-slung "emergency buttons" have been around for years, and have saved lives. But having a phone as the closest device takes that concept to the next level: if the person can speak or send a text message, the information transmitted could be vital. And as the IoT begins to form around us, senior-phones can be patched into that network, making them even more useful for their owners.

Not all the "smarts" go into uploading selfies or smashing colored icons on a hi-res screen – some of them go into simple designs that, often unheralded, help improve the lives of our elderly residents. As senior-phones evolve, and other wearables come on the scene, look for these devices to become part of the decentralized healthcare space.

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