By Cele Garrett
Recently, I had a chance to ask several of our At Home in Alexandria members to share their favorite technology aids. It turns out, most of their favorite tech features are low cost or even free of charge and easy to use.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly two thirds of people ages 65 and up now own a smartphone — and they’re discovering the vast array of apps designed to make us safer, more comfortable and more organized.
The built-in magnifying glass and flashlight features on iPhones are indispensable for reading tiny print, especially in ambient lighting. Meanwhile, DuoLingo, the language learning app, and Headspace, a mindfulness app that offers guided meditation, are gaining in popularity among seniors. And Happify, a science-based mental health app, provides activities for stress reduction and tasks to overcome negative thoughts. One AHA member, Roberta, shared one of her favorite apps: Tile, a tracker app that helps her find her keys, wallet or even phone.
Google Home and Amazon Echo/Alexa speaker devices continue to be popular among seniors. Some people are uncomfortable with the notion that their device could record their private conversations, but it seems most users feel the lack of privacy is a trade-off for these devices’ helpful services. And if you are concerned about privacy, here is a tip: Go to your Alexa app, choose “settings,” then choose “Alexa Privacy.” There you can select the ways to limit retention and use of your information.
For many of us, it’s merely a convenience to ask Alexa to play our favorite music, check the weather or look up a fun fact, but using these voice commands can be a game-changer for individuals with vision impairment. You can ask Alexa to set a timer or alarm, text, make a phone call, make a list, order groceries and even call 911.
It can be fun to test Alexa’s almanac-like knowledge. One AHA member, Babs, sometimes asks her device, “Alexa, tell me a joke” or “Alexa, tell me what happened this day in history.”
“The amount of programming available online dwarfs local broadcast. If my local NPR station doesn’t carry the second hour of ‘Science Friday,’ I simply tell my device to stream the station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that does,” Steve, another AHA member, pointed out.
He also talks with his sister in Washington State, who has an Amazon Echo device of her own, with ease, as if they were connected by an intercom.
You can manage your medications with the help of your speaker device, phone or your Apple Watch.
“At the moment I take three different eye drops. Each one has a different schedule for each eye. I use my calendar to record the times and a timer to remind me,” one AHA member who recently had eye surgery said.
Telehealth and medical appointment scheduling has become easier with health providers’ patient portals. I confess I was a skeptic at first: Recently, I called to schedule a medical appointment. The voicemail message gave me the option of getting a call-back since their line was busy. With a meeting that started in 20 minutes and figuring they would call back in the middle of the meeting, I opted to stay on the phone line. The voicemail also gave me the option of scheduling through their portal, but I figured the time spent logging in, choosing the type of appointment, etc. would take too long. Instead, I sat at my desk with my phone on speaker while I worked — for nearly 20 minutes. With current labor shortages and continual medical cost-cutting, we may just have to get used to communicating with our doctor’s office through their medical portal.
Digital banking is an area of great promise for seniors. Postal delays are not uncommon, and we can have an unforeseen event that prevents us from mailing our bills on time. Online banking allows you to access your accounts to transfer money and pay bills wherever you are. Apple Pay and digital wallets are another way to simplify payments. Several AHA members use Web Bill Pay to pay their bills and some use Zelle or Venmo for small peer-to-peer cash payments. Unsurprisingly, news reports about identity theft keep many people from considering online banking, but it can be done safely.
When libraries closed during the pandemic, more people discovered the Libby app, which provides an endless supply of reading opportunities. The Washington Metro jurisdictions of Alexandria, Arlington, D.C. and Fairfax County permit reciprocal memberships by living in one of those jurisdictions.
As one AHA member, Jan, told me: “I love that I can reserve and then borrow e-books and e-audiobooks from our four local library systems. In addition, each library system offers me the chance to electronically access many resources — like the Wall Street Journal — for no charge. I can search for something to read through all four systems, then reserve it and download it, all on my phone.”
A resource worth noting here is the Virginia Assistive Technology System, a program for all kinds of assistive technology, whether it’s high-tech electronics or low-tech assistive devices, such as flatware for arthritic hands. Though this is a statewide program, it has an extensive library located in Fairfax where you can learn about and even try various devices to fit every individual’s needs. Visit www.vats. org for more information.
The writer is executive director for At Home in Alexandria (AHA), a nonprofit “village” offering practical, social and educational support for its members ages 55 and over in Alexandria.