You need a project, something to make you feel useful. Well, everyone over the age of 70 in the UK has been asked to stay at home for 12 weeks, starting this weekend, to try to protect themselves from the coronavirus. That means that millions of adult children and grandchildren are going to have to step up our tech support skills to make it as safe, comfortable and frustration-free as possible for our elders and betters.
Some over 70s are au fait with using apps to order food and prescriptions, of course, so most of the advice here is geared towards family members who tend to struggle with the tech in their home.
If the last time you’ll set foot in your parents or grandparents’ home for three months will be this weekend, or even if you’re doing everything remotely already, here’s what you need to do. (Once you’ve washed your hands with soap for 20 seconds.)
Start with the phone
We’ll get on to all the new-fangled ways you can stay in touch in a minute, but many over 70s might well feel most comfortable using some kind of phone. The landline shouldn’t need too much attention, but make sure they know the basics of how to make and receive calls if they have a smartphone or a feature phone with big buttons, such as the ones Doro produces.
Go through their contacts and add any friends or family members’ numbers they might have written down in an address book. Add your number to Favourites on Android and iOS so your name appears at the top of the list. Locate the charger for the phone, too, and make sure they have it to hand. Physically labelling the charger “phone” is never a bad idea considering the number of different chargers all households have these days.
Age UK’s Silver Line “for a cheerful chat, day or night” might be a nice addition for anyone living alone – the number is 0800 470 80 90. The charity suggests, in its coronavirus advice, “setting up a rota with family and friends to make sure someone is regularly giving them a ring”.
Make sure they have the Wi-Fi and email basics
Ask your parents and grandparents how and where they want to store the essential info they might need such as the Wi-Fi password, their main email address and password, and perhaps their Facebook log-in, too. If they are willing to share, it may be wise to make sure you have a copy of this information, too.
Show them where the Wi-Fi icon is on their phones and rearrange and declutter their phone or tablet homescreens.
If they have not done so already, add payment details to the App Store or Google Play Store, in case they want to buy apps and games or make online purchases.
Sort out food deliveries and utilities
To help out with online food shopping, and depending on how internet curious your family members are, you have a few options. You could simply take their grocery order over the phone and order it yourself online or via the supermarket apps. You could set them up with accounts so they can do it all themselves on their phones, or better yet get them a budget tablet like a Fire HD or a cheap Chromebook.
Or you could go the extreme, collaborative route and remotely access their computer via Quick Assist on Windows 10 or the ‘Ask to Share Screen’ feature within Messages on macOS. That means they can browse while you do the clicking and ordering.
You might also want to check out the Deliveroo or Uber Eats options in their area or ask your relatives what local restaurants they might want to order takeaway from via phone. And make (socially distanced) enquiries about local WhatsApp, Facebook or Nextdoor groups offering to run local errands.
Likewise with smart meters. If they’re on PAYG, either make sure they know how to top up online or take over responsibility. If they usually go to the bank in person, set up phone or online banking. Set up delivery for NHS repeat prescriptions online with pharmacies such as Lloyds and Boots.
Broadband providers are already starting to limit in-person engineer visits. But do a quick speed test to check it’s above a crawl and if it’s too slow to say, support video calls, call the provider to see if anything can be done over-the-air without a visit.
Now is the time for video calls
If your parents and grandparents are already on WhatsApp, probably the easiest way to video chat with them is to stick to WhatsApp video calls. Ditto FaceTime for iPhone users. They don’t need to learn anything new and it works well enough.
For longer chats or group chats, Skype is a good bet. HouseParty is probably best left to ‘virtual pub’ hangs but the app Marco Polo might also be worth considering if you are still going into your workplace. It lets you leave video messages if you can’t always do live calls; don’t forget WhatsApp has built-in Voice Notes here too for any family members who are fond of leaving voicemails.
Consider a smart display or speaker
For anyone living on their own, though, or who may have problems with controlling tech due to conditions such as arthritis, we’d seriously recommend considering a smart display. What’s a smart display? It’s essentially a tablet on a stand that usually has a voice assistant built in. Always think long and hard about putting microphones and cameras into your family’s homes but here, the benefits could vastly outweigh the concerns.
Our top pick for these purposes would be the Nest Hub Max (£199). It’s got a big, 10-inch HD touchscreen to show them your beaming face and a 6.5MP camera for Google Duo video calls – if you don’t want to buy yourself a smart display, just download the app. It means your relatives don’t have to faff about with holding or propping up devices for regular video chats; all they need to do is put it in the right spot and answer your calls.
There’s also the Google Assistant to use voice commands to ask for their favourite radio stations, pull up home workout videos on YouTube or simply to just chat to. If you’re not keen on the camera, a cheap Echo Dot (£40) or Google Home Mini, with no screen, or the camera-less, cheaper and smaller Nest Home Hub all also work as a companion to elderly people living on their own. If you’re not keen on Google, there’s also the Amazon Echo Show and the less popular Facebook Portal in this category.
In fact if you can get over any (justifiable) ill feeling towards Facebook in general, the Facebook Portal TV (£149) is another option worth considering. It turns their TV into a video calling device and automatically pans and zooms around the room depending on who is talking.
Keep them going with their Fitbit fix
One concern around asking over 70s to stay indoors for three months is the change to their exercise routine; maybe they have had to stop going to the gym or water aerobics. If they have a Fitbit or another more basic fitness tracker, perhaps talk about how they can lower their daily steps or movement goal for the self-isolation period.
Whether it’s walking up and down the stairs, around the garden or – as seems to be permitted for now – for short, socially distanced walks near their home, there are ways to get to 2,000 or even 5,000 steps a day. It needn’t be connected either – something as simple as a resistance band for home stretches and workouts might do the trick.
For parents or grandparents who might be at risk of falling indoors, Apple introduced fall detection with the Series 4, so this means sadly the now £199 Series 3 is no good here. The Apple Watch Series 4 or Series 5 (£379) are expensive accessories if this is your main priority, but might be worth the extra alert system. There are also cheaper options such as the £99 Buddi wristband (WIRED hasn’t tested this option out yet, though).
Sort out Kindles, streaming and game night
If your over-70s relatives have e-readers like the basic Kindle (£80), download a whole library of e-books for them from the Kindle Store now. The Kindle UI is easy enough for reading, but some elderly people may stumble during the process of finding and downloading the titles they want to read.
The BBC is revamping its programming with more shows on cooking with essentials and virtual church services. Also, a streaming stick for on-demand TV and films might make sense if they don’t have a smart TV. Choose one with a remote control such as a Now TV stick (£28) or Fire TV stick rather than one that relies on in-app scrolling. (You can technically use a physical remote with a Google Chromecast, but it requires more faffing.) More and more arts and media organisations are announcing virtual lessons, quizzes and meet-ups to help them stay afloat.
Staying in touch with your parents and grandparents can’t just be about video calls – especially if none of you are likely to have much to report from your day-to-day self-isolated life. Try out mobile games like Scrabble Go and Uno King for iOS and Android, and four-player Ludo over Facebook Messenger. From our own extensive testing, two real chess boards and a laptop Skype session just about works, too.
Ultimately, you’ll know how best to entertain your own family as well as yourself. They miss your kids already? Let them ‘babysit’ via webcam. They desperately want you to get engaged? Send screenshots of your Bumble matches. In fact, the best mood-booster might be suggesting they browse holiday destinations for when the coronavirus crisis is over.
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Sophie Charara edits WIRED Recommends. She tweets from @sophiecharara
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