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Technology becomes friendlier to older generations

A growing array of products and services are made with seniors' needs and preferences in mind.

December 20, 2009|By Michelle Maltais

With all the gee-whiz gadgets that younger family members have been heaping on their elders, senior-sensitive technical support and guidance has been sorely lacking.

Just as the use and sharing of technology can bring families closer -- scattered relatives keeping in touch via video chats on the computer, different generations playing Wii video games together -- it can also create tension and leave older people throwing up their hands.

"A bad experience with a frustrated child can [turn] them off," Henderson said.

Her venture, FloH Club, hopes to let seniors reach out for technical support without anxiety. Members make a low-tech, toll-free telephone call to get a PC tune-up or how-to guidance on e-mail, Facebook, Skype, digital cameras or iPods. Help is available 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

The patient technicians will either talk callers through doing it themselves or, with permission, access the computer remotely. FloH Club offers for $50 a one-time assistance or a security tune-up. Membership costs $25 monthly or $250 annually. For now, it's offering only Windows support and plans to offer iPhone guidance soon, Henderson said.

Internet, simplified

So much communication, photo sharing and scheduling among family and friends has migrated to the Internet that not being online means being out of the loop. FamiliLink is an example of a Web-based portal that brings together a number of the most popular online functions in a single hub with a simplified, user-friendly interface.

The home page features a photo, the day's schedule and large, colored tabs across the top for the home page, messages, pictures, contacts and calendar. In the top left is a button that sends a pre-written urgent e-mail to preselected people.

The page, which is already in a fairly large font, can be magnified several times. If photos, small videos or links to photos or videos are received in an e-mail, they are automatically displayed with no action required from the user.

Family members can update the calendar using Outlook, Yahoo or Google calendars.

Whoever is acting as the administrator on behalf of the user can add contacts, appointments, photos and small video files but cannot access e-mail messages.

FamiliLink is available free of charge.

Fun things

If iPods and mainstream MP3 music players seem too daunting, there are simplified products that do the same thing. Linked Senior puts portable audio in the hands and ears of seniors with a device no smaller than a TV remote control. All it has are five buttons for playing the audio and controlling the volume. Content can be downloaded from computers or from kiosks in senior living facilities.

In addition to music, the 512-megabyte device can hold about two audio books. Initially, the developers wanted to include lots of computer memory. But it turns out that seniors don't seem to use MP3 players the way teens do, said Charles de Vilmorin, chief executive and co-founder of Linked Senior. "Older people don't act like teenagers and keep everything," he said. "You can always come to the kiosk and get more."

De Vilmorin says the system offers more than 60,000 audio pieces for download, including audio books, talk shows, radio shows, music, language lessons, news, cooking lessons, sermons and games.

Listening to an MP3 device may not seem social, but De Vilmorin says residential communities have been using them for book discussion groups and cooking classes.

"We found out it really creates community within community," he said.

The company, which officially launched in June, leases the system directly to retirement communities, charging a monthly subscription fee based on the facility's number of beds. It is currently in 14 retirement communities in the mid-Atlantic region, with plans to expand across the country.

On the horizon

Short-term memory is often the first thing to show wear and tear. But the may have a solution.

Currently dubbed "first-person vision," the eyeglasses act like a backup brain, with two tiny attached cameras -- one looking forward and the other focused on the eye to track what the user is looking at. A memory chip would contain digital images of and data about faces and places familiar to the user. The glasses, through an audio device, would help the wearer identify who or what they are seeing.

The glasses -- likely to be available late next year -- could be used by people with memory impairment, autism, Alzheimer's disease or prosopagnosia, the impaired ability to recognize faces. The database of images and data would grow as the user encountered new people and things.

"It can provide comfort, even information that can be helpful to them," said Stone of the . "It can help them navigate the world around them."

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