Using Tech to Talk: Communication Tools for Older Adults

When the brain changes, so does communication.

Two years ago, my grandmother had a stroke. Her physical recovery was speedy, but conversation was a struggle. She now speaks primarily in her first language, Norwegian, but seems to understand English. Names and events get mixed up, and we’re not always sure what she comprehends. Making or receiving phone calls is a challenging task.

Clear, reciprocal communication is a complex process and a crucial piece of most daily activities. It’s also a vital social connection skill. That’s why communication impairments—from the slightest nuances in language to the complete physiological loss of speaking abilities—can quickly lead an older adult to become frustrated, lonely, depressed, and dependent. A disconnect in communication and cognition can also be quite upsetting to family, friends and care providers.

These tech tools can bridge that gap, putting independence and conversation back into an older adults’s life, and helping caregivers support autonomy and ensure safety.

  • Text-to-Speech: Most modern devices offer text-to-speech functions and apps. Peruse these Android-compatible options or explore Apple’s speech selections to turn typed words into spoken ones.
  • Voice Control: If a Parkinson’s tremor or severe arthritis hinders keyboard use, voice control tools may be a better fit. The more time an individual spends using them, the better; the technology can often adapt to the person’s voice and decode heavy accents or stroke-induced slurring, per Kathy Birkett, co-founder of Senior Care Corner. Birkett, an advocate and educator who has worked with seniors in their homes, hospitals, and various residential care settings for 30+ years, also recommends voice-activated apps like Siri, Alexa, or Cortana—and sees a “real future” in their assistive abilities.
  • Touch-Only: Besides the motor skills required to type, the presence of words and numbers can be offsetting to a person who can no longer process them with ease. The visual clutter of a smart phone can be overwhelming too, particularly for people with dementia. Enter user-friendly tablets and touch-based devices, which rely more heavily on icons and pictures for easy navigation. The grandPad takes simplified use a step further: Caregivers can control the content, setting up family photo libraries, a streamlined email inbox, games, music, and more. It doesn’t require an internet connection either, allowing for safer browsing. Another great programmable feature? An elder can make calls by simply tapping on a familiar face in a picture—no need to remember names or numbers, or transpose one from a handwritten note to a phone’s tiny keypad.
  • Wearables: Wearable tech has significantly advanced in recent years. Products like the Lively Wearable present a stylish, and perhaps less intrusive, alternative. Many of today’s call button systems do have a newer, more sophisticated look, can work outside, and also feature fall-detection sensors. Consumer Advocate offers an overview of the 10 best systems, including GreatCall’s Lively Mobile.
  • Accessibility: Sometimes, just a little tweak in the way an individual uses technology can make a big difference. Rebuilding fine motor skills after a stroke or surgery? Apps like Abilipad and Dexteria address such motor challenges. Or, Android users can search for “Accessibility” options in Google Play.
  • Remote Monitoring: Birkett’s son, who is profoundly deaf, relies on the Ring doorbell system to notify him when someone is at his front door—whether he is at home or away. “He can’t hear the doorbell, but his phone vibrates with a message alert,” she says. Caregivers of those living alone with dementia may also benefit from Ring or similar systems (GrandCare, for example), which allow them to monitor and address time-sensitive elopement incidents or other safety concerns.
  • Cloud Platforms: Thanks to cloud-based tech, all of these tools can “talk” to each other and move with you and your loved one (i.e. on vacation, to doctor’s appointments, trips to the grocery store, etc.). Giving long-distance caregivers and other care team members access to a virtual dashboard also means all can stay informed and keep in touch more readily, an important utility particularly in cases of emergency.

As you consider any of these tech tools, keep the user in mind. “We need to accommodate the devices to the senior, and not the other way around,” Birkett says. We also have to put the devices where they are, she adds. Pair the mobility of the tech with the mobility of the individual, paying attention to high-risk areas—bedside emergency call buttons are of no use to an older adult who falls in the bathroom.

Be patient and flexible through the process of exploring, implementing and continually adjusting the combination of apps and devices that work best. Learn about other senior-friendly technology devices available and get tips for choosing the right tool.

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