Connecting Seniors & Smartphones – Plus Our Take on One Option

Seniors want to stay connected with friends and family not just while they are in their home but any time of the day or night.

In years past, we urged our senior loved ones to get a cordless phone that could travel around the house with them in case of an emergency and to keep from having to get up to answer a call potentially risking their safety.

But now with landlines becoming a thing of the past and smartphones taking their place, seniors can benefit from a switch to the latest technology.

It is estimated by the Pew Research Center that, even though seniors have been considered late adopters of cellular technology, about 77% have a cell phone of some kind even though they tend to be basic phones.

As of early 2015, 27% of those 65 and older had smartphones according to Pew, a 50% increase from the 18% they reported in their survey just one year earlier. That’s a trend we see as very positive.

Choosing the Right Cell Phone for Each Senior

Caregivers who want to help their senior loved ones be connected to family and friends using the latest cellular technology should be asking several questions to help guide their selection.

Here are several considerations in selecting a phone for seniors:

  • Which ones can they operate easily — turn on and off, answer a call, manipulate the buttons, easy to understand icons, easy to visualize with impaired vision?
  • Can they operate the buttons or type a message without difficulty?
  • Which ones have learning curve they can manage?
  • Which ones are within their budget?
  • Can they be added to a family plan with another family member to reduce costs?
  • Does the cellular provider’s coverage provide reliable connectivity where the senior lives and in locations they are likely to visit?
  • Which ones will give them the ability to reach out for help as quickly as possible?
  • Is the phone compatible with or otherwise easily share functions and data with a tablet device?
  • What type of sound quality do they need if they are hard of hearing; do they require hearing aid compatibility?
  • Do they value a good camera, for photos and/or videos, and easy transfer of their files?

Cellular Flip Phones

Sometimes a flip phone is the best choice because it is straightforward to learn and operate. It is pretty simple — open the phone to answer the call and close the phone to disconnect the call. Flip phones are primarily for just making phone calls with little other usefulness or benefits compared to a smartphone.

Because these phones are often recommended for seniors, they might be a good place to begin if your senior doesn’t want a smartphone.

  1. Doro PhoneEasy from Consumer Cellular — phone calling, camera and dialing 911
  2. Jitterbug made by Samsung from GreatCall — flip phone, large buttons, voice dialing, amplified speaker, hearing aid compatible. Jitterbug 5 has a camera
  3. Snapfon ezTwo – speaking keyboard, emergency alert option and monitoring service, large buttons, hearing aid compatible, makes calls, camera and sends texts

Smartphones and Seniors

We feel many seniors can benefit from the features offered by smartphones and have seen enough doing so to realize that is the case.

The portability of smartphones makes it possible for seniors, like those who are younger, to have their communications device with them wherever they go, even those with the larger screens that are easier to read and operate. The ability to carry them in a pocket, handbag, or belt case keeps the smartphone in easy reach.

Having a smartphone means users have a camera, often of high quality, available wherever they are. This eliminates the need for carrying an additional, bulkier device.

While older adults did not grow up texting, as have their grandchildren, we have seen many adapt to it quickly. Even if they prefer a phone call, they realize it is the preferred method of communication for many younger loved ones, with whom they would likely interact less frequently if limited to voice communications.

Don’t overlook, too, the growing popularity of video “calls” using apps such as FaceTime and Skype. Many younger family members who aren’t big on voice calls have adopted this even more personal communications mode.

This is just scratching the surface, but we don’t want to overlook what we see as a tremendous future benefit. The smartphone is quickly becoming the communications hub for the aging in place senior’s home. With the health devices, safety systems, and comfort controls that will enable greater living independence focusing on mobile devices, smartphones will only become greater assets as we grow older.

GreatCall Smartphone for Seniors

We have been watching GreatCall and their cellphone offerings targeted to seniors. They offer a smartphone, the Jitterbug Touch, for those seniors who might prefer newer technology.

The Jitterbug Touch smartphone will allow your senior to text, email, access the Internet, share photos, get health and safety information and download apps. It also offers unique access to urgent care from skilled medical professionals and can transform into a personal medical alert device.

GreatCall’s Jitterbug Touch has a GPS locator and the ability for a caregiver to access their senior via a caregiver app.

We were provided with Jitterbug Touch on loan from GreatCall (it has been returned) so we could test it ourselves. We were not compensated for the trial of the phone and our opinion about its operation was not influenced in any way by GreatCall.

greatcall box contentsUpon receiving the phone, we reviewed the user’s guide and began using the phone. We tested the apps we thought seniors would most likely desire downloading onto the phone, such as Facebook, Pinterest and some games. We personally used the phone for a period of time in order to determine how well it would be received by seniors. We tested out the texting and email functions, in addition to the calling features and apps.

After we spent time using it, we gave it to some seniors along with the user’s guide and asked them to use it as they would any smartphone. We told them to make long distance calls, use the apps, check out emails and even play some games. We instructed them to carry it around with them and put it to the test as they would their own phone so we could get some real data to help other seniors and their family caregivers make cellular phone decisions.

We found the comments we received from our senior testers, who gave feedback freely after using the device for two weeks, very interesting.

Our Jitterbug Touch Experiences and Findings

These are a compilation of our experiences and those of our senior testers of GreatCall’s Jitterbug Touch smartphone.

Device and Plan Cost

Because cost is near or at the top of the list of considerations for many seniors and family caregivers, we’ll address it first.

The cost of the Jitterbug Touch is reasonable, around $150 with lower sale prices. Monthly service plans start low for those who don’t use the device frequently or primarily use wifi for apps, web access and file sharing.

Plan costs can be higher than the large carriers, especially on family plans, for those who plan to use the Touch as their home phone (a growing practice) or use cellular data for a lot of photo/video sharing or streaming media from the web.

As with any new technology or device, it is important to learn as much as you can about what it will do and what needs you have that it can solve before you buy. Not every device is going to work with every person.

Battery Life

Despite GreatCall’s promotion of a “long-lasting battery” as a major feature, we found the battery life of our test model to be disappointing.

After charging the phone battery initially, every day the battery needed to be recharged, even with only light use. At times it seemed that this particular phone would lose power quickly, especially when using connected features.

The seniors expressed concern that the phone’s charge would be lost while they were out for the day before they returned home. In the case of an emergency while they were away from home, not having a working phone and the potential for being stranded was unsettling for our senior testers.

We tried to use the phone when it was plugged in and the battery was low, but the phone would not allow operation while plugged into a power source. We have not experienced this with any of the recent generations of mobile devices we have used.

We realize the battery life of this particular phone could be a result of the fact that it was a loaner to be used for test purposes and may have been well used previously. While a new phone might not present this problem, however, it made us wonder if even a new Jitterbug Touch would find its battery degrade and thus be troublesome for seniors.

Slow 3G Connection

A key reason for using a smartphone is the ability to access and share information via the web. The Jitterbug Touch does that, but with a 3G data connection instead of the 4GLTE offered by most smartphones.

For those who want to download or stream media, share pictures or video taken with their smartphone, look up local eateries or movie offerings, or have a video call with grandchildren, connection speed is important.

In today’s digital world, 3G data speeds are the wireless equivalent of dial-up internet. Slow connection speeds can frustrate users and lead to habits and initial impressions of smartphones that could make seniors less likely to even try the future applications that will enhance independent living, even on faster later devices.

On the other hand, those who are cost conscious will appreciate the slower connection speeds will make it less likely users will burn through the relatively small data packages GreatCall offers.

There is an option to add a microSD expansion card for an additional 64 GB of memory if that is needed.

Learning Curve

greatcall app menu screenWhile GreatCall bills the Jitterbug Touch as “easy to use right out of the box,” our senior testers were put off by the learning curve to be able to operate the cell phone. They took one look at the thick user’s guide and became anxious before even turning on the device.

We should note the Touch is an Android device and our senior testers had experience with the Apple iOS operating system on the iPad.

One comment from a senior was that if it took that much reading to be able to use it, they would prefer getting a iPhone, which would be compatible to their tablet. They were hoping that this phone would prove easier to use than an iPhone because it was intended for seniors but it wasn’t easier, just different.

It seems no matter what type of technology device a senior (or us) try to use, it will be new and require some trial and error to learn how to use it. They stated even their tablets took a period of time to learn about the icons, apps and usage and admit there are still times when using their tablets can be a mystery.

Despite its thickness, we found the user’s guide is written in such a way to be easy to understand. In addition, GreatCall offers 24 hour assistance to help your senior use the phone and troubleshoot problems that might occur.


One senior tester looked for a calendar but this was not included on the basic phone setup. When told that this could be downloaded as an app, they were accepting of that and said it needed to be available to keep track of medical appointments and important dates such as birthdays and anniversaries.

Storage Capability

The Jitterbug Touch comes with a relatively small 8 GB of storage, a fair amount of which is occupied by the operating system and apps. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for pictures and video.

The Touch’s storage is expandable by up to 64 GB with a micro SD card, which should provide sufficient capacity for all but the most avid picture takers. The use of a micro SD card, though, adds a step in use and is a small piece that a user of any age could easily misplace.

Using the Smartphone

The phone was lightweight and the icons easy to use. Our senior testers needed help setting up apps onto the phone and navigating everything that was offered. Once they learned how to use all the buttons and icons, however, it became easier for them.

The phone can be personalized with ringtones and alerts as desired.

One senior tester wanted the icons to be able to sync with her tablet especially since she was familiar with that operating system. Be aware of the difference between iOS and Android systems.

There were no preloaded games and we had to download apps for games and most were for a fee. Even simple things like solitaire or crossword games were apps that needed to be found and downloaded — two game types we have come to expect are standard issue on our tech devices.

Daily health tips came unsolicited to the message inbox. These could be confusing and maybe annoying to seniors because they wouldn’t know who sent them or how to remove them. It can be done by deleting the message however, since they were unsolicited, messages may sit in a queue taking up data space on the phone.

Using the Keyboard

greatcall keyboard screenSeniors often have a problem with typing on a small screen because their fingers are not as flexible as they once were and many with arthritis may experience limited dexterity, so using the keyboard is a concern.

The keyboard appears whenever a need to add text comes up. The keyboard conveniently can be used in portrait or landscape mode so gets a little easier to use when on its side.

There is a built in voice activated typing feature in case a senior has difficulty typing which when tested, was error free in transcribing my voice and instructions for a text message, which we found to be a pleasant surprise.

GreatCall Services for Seniors and Family Caregivers

greatcall urgent care screenWhile reporting on the Jitterbug Touch itself, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the menu of services offered by GreatCall with their devices, each designed to meet the needs of seniors and their family caregivers.

  • Urgent response capability, with trained agents to evaluate situations and get help if needed
  • 24/7 access by phone to physicians and nurses
  • Daily automated check-in calls
  • Medication and prescription refill reminders
  • Weekly calls from wellness experts

These services are additional fee add-ons to monthly smartphone service.

Our Overall Take on the Jitterbug Touch

We think GreatCall has a good idea with the Jitterbug Touch, but one that needs some upgrades to be real benefit to a lot of seniors. A larger screen and 4G data capability should make it more useful to many, as would larger data packages for those who want to get full use of their devices away from home without exposure to the risks associated with public wifi.

At the same time, we aren’t sure there is a need for senior-targeted smartphones when there is a full range of devices to meet most needs already, with the added benefit of being able to join family plans at other carriers, which typically offer greater capability at lower cost.

Choosing the Right Smartphone With Senior Loved Ones

As with any new technology or device, it is important to learn as much as possible about what it will do and what needs it is intended to meet before a purchase is made.

It’s important to match device capabilities with individual needs.

Involve seniors in the decision making process — ideally, family caregivers would be involved in the senior’s process — so they are more likely to get a device and plan they will use.

We believe that being connected, no matter which type of device your senior uses, is worth the effort for research, set up, training and future troubleshooting for family caregivers and seniors.

Not the least benefit of the process is doing something with senior loved ones and forming a shared interest in technology, adding to experiences and memories that can last forever.