What’s the best device for seniors stuck in isolation?

  • Smart speakers are a great option for those struggling to use a laptop, phone or tablet
  • A smart speaker with a screen such as Amazon’s Echo Show or Facebook’s Portal is a simple way to keep in touch with video calls
  • If users are comfortable with a touchscreen, Apple’s iPad is the best choice

With long term isolation now a reality for many seniors, technology is the key to keeping in touch with them – but what’s the best device to buy seniors?

Here at The Tech Helper, we’re pulling together the best advice from across the internet to help everyone make the right decision.

If you’ve got any tips or stories to share, get in touch via the comments or our Facebook Group.

Speaker, tablet or laptop?

A lot depends on the technical abilities of who you’re trying to help.

At the most basic level, a smart speaker with a screen such as Amazon’s Echo Show (which Wired also recommends for seniors) may be best – allowing people to simply ask questions or make video or voice calls with voice commands.

To make life even easier, print out a list of common commands and leave them nearby – including how to call relatives and listen to their favourite radio stations.

You can also set up routines, whereby multiple commands and triggered by a single phrase – so for instance, saying ‘Alexa, Good Morning’ can turn on lights, set the temperature and start playing a favourite radio station. There’s a guide for setting up routines on Google devices here, and Amazon’s Alexa devices here.

These smart devices are pretty simple and limited in what they can do compared to a tablet – but don’t underestimate the joy seeing a family member pop up on screen unexpectedly will give someone who’s been stuck on their own all day.

They also have the great advantage you can log in remotely via their respective control apps and set them up, tweak commands and add new skills. You will need to make sure your family all has devices from the same manufacturer though (so Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Home or Facebook’s Portal).

According to AARP, a smart speaker also has another great advantage – someone to talk to. The British charity Abbeyfield, which provides sheltered housing and care homes for elderly people, worked with the University of Reading and Greenwood Campbell on one trial, in a project called Voice For Loneliness, which gave seniors smart speakers along with a cheat sheet. It found they really connected with the smart device, with one even saying it ‘felt like a friend’.

The team used Google Home devices, and created a cheat sheet you can download here with basic commands. Here’s a video on the project with some more details:

Tablets are really the next step up the tech ladder, and in fact for many, they are really the gold standard. What you buy really depends on your budget. 

In a perfect world, Apple’s iPad is your best best, and incredibly easy to use (my own mother, in fact, swears by hers).

We’ve written a guide to setting it up most effectively here.

But there are some much cheaper options – with Amazon’s Fire HD tablet being a particularly good one. 

And if you think a more traditional laptop would work, Google’s Chromebooks are well worth a look, as they’re affordable, simple to use and can be easily controlled remotely. Laptop Mag has a good roundup of what’s available here.

How will they connect?

While most of us take home wifi for granted, don’t forget many people don’t have access.

For them, it may be worth paying the extra to get a device with cellular capabilities so they can get online via mobile networks quickly and easily – the most recent iPads even come with an electronic SIM card built in so you won’t have to go buy a physical card, and can set up a plan right from the device. Here’s Apple’s guide on how to do that for the US and UK.

It may also be cheaper and less hassle to use a mobile hotspot if getting broadband installed is an issue.

So what’s the best device to buy seniors? To help you decide what to buy, here are the pros and cons of each type of device, with some tips to using them most effectively.

Apple iPad  – The gold standard

Apple's 10.2 iPad
Apple’s 10.2 iPad, the gold standard for getting seniors connected

Apple’s iPad is really the ultimate choice if the user is comfortable with a touchscreen – and you can afford it.

Many senior users find this a far easier approach that learning how to use a mouse or trackpad, and the same intuitive nature that led to viral videos of babies using iPads is often seen.

The iPad is, however, relatively expensive although Amazon often offers discounts. It’s also worth checking out Apple’s refurbished section here if you’re on a tight budget.

There are also quite a few iPads to choose from. However, for most senior users, the 10.2inch iPad is the best, and most affordable choice. It’s still got a fingerprint sensor rather than FaceID, and isn’t quite as flashy as the iPad Pro with its FaceID camera. But it gets the job done with the same simple to use interface and massive selection of apps.

If you’re simply repurposing your old iPad, we’ve got a whole guide to setting up an iPad for seniors here, along with some of the accessories you should consider buying.

The Best Budget Tablet – Amazon Fire HD

Amazon's Fire 7 tablet is a great budget buy for seniors

If you really can’t stretch to an iPad, don’t worry – there are a whole load of cheaper alternatives.

To be honest, they often aren’t as simple to use, but that doesn’t mean they are useless, and we know of many seniors who swear by their Android tablet.

Probably the best budget buy is Amazon’s Fire HD.

However, a slightly left field option is Amazon’s kids tablet, which comes complete with a rugged case to protect it from accidents. You can also swap out the kid friendly games and apps for apps more suited to seniors.

We’re working on a guide to setting up Android tablets for seniors, so check back soon…

Is Alexa the answer?

Amazon's Alexa Show 5 is one of the best device to buy seniors
Amazon’s Echo Show 5

Amazon’s voice assistants can be a great buy for seniors, as long as you print out some basic commands and leave them near the speaker (I’ve learnt this the hard way, my own mother often makes several attempts at names before remembering Alexa).

We’ve got you covered with a downloadable cheat sheet and a guide to using Alexa here.

You can also easily set up An Echo device for a relative so all they need to do is plug it in – we’ve got a full guide for that here.

We’ve also got a full guide to using Alexa.

They’re great for music and radio, but also thanks to Amazon’s voice call technology, and a feature called Drop In. 

Pocket Lint has a great guide to setting it up here, but in a nutshell, it allows users to call others and listen in simply by saying ‘Alexa, drop in on’ and then the contact’s name. It’s rather like an intercom.

It’s a great feature for keeping in touch with close family, although obviously does come with some privacy tradeoffs..

The key to Alexa are ‘skills’, which you can download remotely via an app, a hugely useful feature. Adding a skill adds new capabilities and commands to the speaker. However, be warned some of the commands are really not intuitive and can be far too complex. Luckily, if they’re not working out, you can remove and try another easily. We’ve created a downloadable cheat sheet you can print out to keep near the speaker here.

If you’re on a tight budget, then the basic Echo Dot is a good buy at under $50 (£50 in the UK)

We’d recommend going for something with a screen and camera such as the Echo Show 8, which is available for $69 (or £69 in the UK, with a special Mother’s Day discount). Wired also recommends this for seniors, and we’d say it’s probably the best smart speaker for seniors out there – although it’s a very close run race with Google’s Home range.

Google Home

Google's home Mini
The Google Home Mini

Google’s range of Home devices is also a solid contender for best device to buy seniors, with a range of devices.

Much like Alexa, they’re great because you can manage them remotely via Google’s app.

In fact, Google Home is CNET’s choice the best device for seniors, and they put together some tips here.

The British charity Abbeyfield, which provides sheltered housing and care homes for elderly people, used Google home in its trial, and worked with the University of Reading and Greenwood Campbell on a cheat sheet for Google Home you can download here.

Nursenextdoor also has some good hints here, while Best Buy has a good video explaining how you can set up routines here.

Facebook Portal

Facebook's Portal is one of the best device to buy seniors
Facebook Portal

Facebook’s Portal has become a good choice for the elderly, and its video call capabilities are particularly good, being able to follow users around the room as they speak, expand and contract the view automatically, and even block out background noise.

It also has Alexa capabilities built in, so can do everything Amazon’s smart speaker can, once you set it up.

CNBC has a good overview of its pros and cons here, and while tech reviewers hit out at the device for Facebook’s privacy issues, it seems many users are comfortable with the device despite this. It’s extremely simple to use and, obviously, well integrated into Facebook’s ecosystem with WhatsApp and Messenger capabilities built in.

Apple HomePod

Apple’s HomePod speaker

While it’s not the most obvious choice for seniors, in fact a homePod can be a great option for users who are already in the Apple ecosystem and used to using Siri.

It’s expensive, and definitely more of a premium audio product, but if your parent already has an iPhone and is comfortable with it, this is a great choice, particularly if they’re going to listen to a lot of music.

Apple has a good overview of Siri and the commands you can use here.

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