Need Tech Support? Call in the Grandkids! The Real Benefits of Technology for Aging Parents

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If your aging parents are a bit leery about using today’s technology, call in the grandchildren. Even the youngest ones seem to intuit how to use smart phones and tablets, search for and download apps, and have mastered the Internet.  And they no doubt can show their grandparents how to use a fitness tracker or play brain-training games, too.

In fact, the grandchildren may be key to engaging your aging parents with the array of technological gadgets that can help them stay mentally and physically active, and keep in touch with friends and family so that they stay socially connected, even if they live alone.

A mid-2014 survey by Pew Research Center reinforced the important role the grandchildren can play. In that survey, only 18 percent of seniors felt they were able to learn to use new technology on their own while 77 percent wanted someone to walk them through and show them what to do. Call in the grandchildren! That’s something they can do.

That same survey showed that 77 percent of seniors had cell phones, but only 18 percent had smartphones—a figure that reportedly has risen considerably since then. The Pew 2014 survey also reported that six of 10 seniors go online, and that those users tended to be more affluent, better educated, and healthier than non-users.

The Pew findings, even slightly out of date, suggest that getting many of the seniors who could benefit most from the wave of new technology aimed at helping them “age in place” may be an uphill struggle, but one worth making.

With that in mind, cell phone and smartphone makers have come up with ways to make the devices easier to use, with larger buttons to make keypads easier to see and operate, picture/photo keys so seniors with memory problems can push the picture to connect if they can’t remember a number, and even with voice activated dialing.

A Blend of Old and New

Technology, both old and new, that aging seniors can use to improve their health and well-being seems to fall into several categories: physical fitness, mental fitness, overall health, and socialization.

When it comes to taking care of themselves, your aging parents need to be reminded about the wisdom of that time-honored saying “Use it or Lose it.” Literally, the more they age, the more their well-being depends on remaining active, both physically and mentally, and this includes socialization and being with other people, as well as moving the body and challenging the mind.

Admittedly, not all of the technology that seniors can and do use qualifies as new. Audio books, CDs, DVDs, and e-readers have been around for years. The Pew survey found that 27 percent of seniors (defined as 65 and older) were tablet or ebook users. Video and CD offerings, such as Great Courses and foreign language courses, are popular with seniors, as are classes offered by many schools and local groups, many of them designed for a senior audience.

Keep Seniors Moving

Smartphone users must have discovered the growing number of apps aimed at exercise and physical fitness, and then been overwhelmed by the prospect of deciding which are worthwhile. Several sites provide some guidance, but there are plenty more apps on various sites, and you can also find videos and TV shows that provide seniors with a doable, age appropriate exercise regimen.

One key to fitness and mobility is to keep seniors moving, and a fitness tracker may offer the incentive and challenge needed to accomplish that. An online search for fitness trackers will show what’s available, what they do and what they cost. Anything that keeps track of how much you move challenges seniors, but tracking sleep and eating patterns can make seniors aware of how they are doing those health and well-being essentials as well. In addition to tracking movement and sleep, most fitness trackers can be set to remind when the wearer has been inactive—i.e. sitting—too long and should get up and move.

If the grandkids have a Nintendo Switch, with the game Animal Crossin, Fortnite, or Legend of Zelda bought with the console, they can share with their grandparents, again challenging them to move, that’s a plus. A number of the programs/games will help keep both generations active, but for the grandparents in particular, it might be worth investing in a balance exercise program, or gentle aerobics and basic yoga poses, though the grandparents also might have fun with the games the kids play, all of which challenge hand-eye coordination, cognitive skills, and get them to move.

An unbelievable number of devices make it easier for seniors to get some exercise, everything from simple bicycle pedaling to stretch bands, light weights and virtual personal trainers and coaches, as well as sophisticated, and expensive, equipment like stationary bikes and step climbers. Check online or any of the numerous catalogs aimed at seniors.

You will also find a variety of canes, walking sticks, and walkers, some walkers motorized, and some equipped with laser light to guide steps. All of these can help keep seniors moving.

For those who need even more help, Honda has developed a walk assist device, lightweight motorized equipment that fastens around hips and thighs and guides the stride. A prototype has been tested in Japan. Another device, Walkasins, helps those with peripheral neuropathy; it is a wearable prosthetic device to  improve walking and balance and decrease the risk of falling.

Using the Brain: Mental Fitness

“Use it or lose it” means keeping the brain, as well as the body, active. One way is to play some of the many brain-training games now available. Many of these games are fun and challenging, and, if playing regularly, can be addictive, helping to keep the brain and mind active. (An online search for brain games, brain fitness or brain training will show what’s available for you to try.)

Web-based brain training exercises add to the standard repertoire of challenging brain exercises–many of which your aging parents may not consider brain exercises because they do them anyway–crosswords, sudoku, solitaire, and jigsaw puzzles, to suggest a few. Some recent ads have even been pitching coloring books for seniors.

Reading is another way to keep the brain active. E-readers with font size that can be enlarged and even audio books are widely available and good for seniors with limited vision or vision problems. Newspapers and magazines also are available on these devices. Many public libraries make it possible to download and check out materials for e-readers.

Many aging experts urge seniors to learn something new. Learning a new language is one common suggestion. Any activity that challenges the brain, fits into that category and there are plenty of ways to do it: take a class, either in person or online; take a course in an unfamiliar subject, again either online or at a local center; or you might peruse the Great Courses catalog. Offerings are available either through downloads, CE or DVD, and many libraries have courses for loan.

Staying Active Socially

Socialization contributes to well-being, especially for seniors. Seniors, 65 and older, who spent some hours a day socializing with family and friends are happier and less stressed. Not only that, spending time with others keeps the brain sharp and plays a role in decreasing dementia and Alzheimer’s. That socialization did not necessarily need to involve direct contact. For seniors, phone and email communication seemed sufficient, probably enhanced by sharing photos and videos or communicating via Skype and Facetime.

Such findings should be reassuring to families and caregivers who worry about seniors “aging in place” alone, especially those who live in rural or remote areas, but they also point to the need to provide socialization to prevent depression that springs from loneliness and isolation. Here, too, the grandkids can help by sending photos and reporting to their grandparents on their daily activities so both sides feel more connected.

If seniors are mobile, getting out is the antidote, whether it means taking a class, playing golf, playing cards with friends, joining a senior center, going to church, even volunteering, an activity that adds purpose to socialization. And if the grandkids can take part in any of those activities, so much the better, for they can help ensure that their grandparents “use it” and don’t “lose it.”

This article has been updated October, 2023 since it was originally published on November, 2015.

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