Richard Tallent’s occasional blog

The Missing Computer for the Elderly

My grandparents, now in their early 80s, are visiting from Tennessee this week. They are still incredibly independent, living at home half the year and driving their RV down to Florida every winter. But they aren’t in perfect health, especially when it comes to vision, and though they have Facebook and email, they aren’t computer experts. Let’s just say their email addresses still end with “@aol.com.”

My grandfather wanted to buy a new laptop, since his is “too slow.” But after several hours of searching at Best Buy, I’m completely at a loss of what to recommend.

  • We looked at some Windows 8.1 machines, and I was thoroughly confused by the UI. The screen-flipping makes no sense, the corner-based controls are beyond unintuitive, and the tiled view is an utter random disaster. I never did find an equivalent of a Start menu to just see the damned application list. Trying to explain this Microsoft uber-failure to my octogenarian ancestors would be utterly impossible. I hear there’s a way to disable this mess and get back to a desktop they are more familiar with, but I didn’t get a chance to try it. Worse, half of the applications he uses (Roxio EasyMedia Creator [for slide show DVDs and CDs], a button-making application [physical buttons], and a Mahjong application my grandmother has used since probably Windows 3.1 won’t work on it.
  • I hear you can downgrade to Windows 7, but the idea of sticking them with an OS that is already 6 years out of date and unsupported by Microsoft was not appealing.
  • My grandfather was able to figure out my wife’s Macbook Air and get to his email, but learning a whole new OS would be too much for him, much less my grandmother. And there again is the issue of compatibility with their existing apps. Parallels, VirtualBox, or dual-boot just would not work.
  • I have a feeling they would be able to do about 12 of their computer time on an iPad, but even the full-sized display is too small, and an iPad is useless for half of the things they like to do (which tend to involve a lot of burning CDs, printing paper, typing, etc.). People who grew up in the Greatest Generation are creators of content, not consumers, and tablets are meant primarily for consumption.

So, basically, there’s no computer for old people. None.

I came up with a short list of requirements:

  • iOS-style launchpad to easily see available apps
  • Compatible with legacy Windows software
  • LARGE display, with large beautiful fonts and icons throughout and easy connections to any modern TV.
  • Predictable user interface that hides very little behind gestures
  • Dirt-simple syncing between devices, backups, and push/pull sharing
  • Simple photo editing.
  • Easy access to mass storage devices (i.e., not just a little SD card)
  • Lots of easy-to-use, solitary games and puzzles
  • Focus on personal productivity tasks, not business tasks, socializing, or content consumption
  • Strong compatibility with physical devices that older people tend to trust: memory sticks, printers, scanners, cameras, CDs, DVDs, etc. They aren’t “cloud” people.
  • Even simpler modes for people with cognitive issues, down to the point of being basically a glorified photo frame with a videophone.
  • Simple remote management functions for family to help manage their device (and eventually manage in-device purchases, etc.).
  • Absolutely, positively NO month to month costs — people on a fixed retirement income can’t afford to be renting software licenses, nor do they want to get trapped into contracts.

This bugs me almost enough to quit my day job and start a company, because current devices just don’t fit the bill for our aging demographics, and it’s actually getting worse with each new release of Windows and OS X.


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