Smart TV product for seniors worth a look

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For Part 2 of our “human assets” series last month, we examined a few computers specifically designed for the elderly: specialized Linux machines that offered a few simple web apps with large print and a simplified user interface. While these machines can be useful for certain users, the biggest challenge in introducing technology to a population that does not rely on it much — by no means a bad thing — is making integration seamless. Teaching someone how to operate something completely new can be met with resistance, especially when the new device seems forced upon the person in the first place.

Furthermore, the priorities of integrating technology into a senior’s life often differ between caregivers and the elderly. To a caregiver, it might make sense to monitor a person remotely through a combination of sensors: wireless blood pressure monitors, fall sensors, bed pressure sensors, scales, cameras. All of that can be monitored, but is it really worth turning Grandma into a cyborg to track that information? Maybe she’s more interested in keeping in touch with her family and receiving pictures. Accomplishing correspondence and medical goals means walking a fine line.

In my research for this column, Part 3 of our series, I found a new type of product that is a variant of smart TV designed precisely for that purpose, sold under the brand name Independa. Its description reads similarly to the Linux computers we examined last month: The TV allows an elderly person to Skype with family, share pictures, browse the web and more.

However, the product is presented in a package the user is already familiar with and likely spends many hours in front of each day: a television. The TV can also be programmed to give the user calendar reminders, such as when to take medication, and can be integrated with a number of wireless medical sensors throughout the home.

I spoke with Lynne Giacobbe, executive director of Kendal at Home, who has used Independa for a few years with her members. Kendal at Home is a nonprofit focused on providing “aging-in-place” care for seniors, allowing them to stay independent and in their own homes instead of nursing homes.

“Televisions are typically something that everybody’s pretty much familiar with,” she says. “The only thing they need to know how to do is to use a television and a remote control.”

Giacobbe notes that the learning curve for teaching an elderly person to use a computer is much greater than for learning to use a TV. She says the most difficult thing in the whole process of learning to use Independa is teaching a person to switch the input when they want to use a DVD player.

She says her elderly clients are constantly seeking and stimulated by “connectivity to their loved ones in a fun way, in a way that provides meaningful connections.” Integrating smart TVs into her program provides that.

“I don’t think there’s a lot else out there in terms of social integration that we’ve come across,” Giacobbe says.

Asked if there is any resistance to the technology, especially considering the medical monitoring portion, Giacobbe says the devices are almost universally positively received by her clients. One can’t help but be reminded of the “Telescreens” in George Orwell’s “1984,” but Giacobbe insists that the familiar platform is not “seen like big brother” compared with similar types of integrated medical monitoring systems.

Giacobbe sees possibilities for this technology to get elderly people involved in communities they would otherwise not be a part of. She cites examples of book-club members unable to participate in group discussions because they cannot drive across town or group fitness activities that could be performed over webcam. She anticipates that this sort of usage will become commonplace as these types of devices grow in popularity.

Putting aside the fact that the lines between TVs and computers are fuzzy today, it makes sense to integrate new technology into a person’s life in a form the person is comfortable with. Instead of taking the time to stand up and walk over to a computer, a person can receive Skype notifications and medication reminders right in the middle of a favorite show. With the integrated medical monitoring feature, you can feel comfortable that when Mom or Dad ignores your status update, it’s not because she or he is in danger, but because the show is more interesting.

Written in collaboration with Dylan Evans, Reveal’s vice president of operations.

This article originally appeared on the IdahoStatesman website.

Protecting human assets (Pt. 2): Be wary of computers marketed to seniors

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Part 2 of a 2 Part Series

It’s hard enough for the average user to stay safe online.

For those who don’t fall into the tech-savvy demographic, it can become nightmarish.

In this column, Part 2 of our series on protecting human assets in a technological world, we focus on the elderly. While there are plenty of seniors who are passionate about the newest technology, many are content to minimize or eliminate their use of the Internet. A 2014 survey found that while close to 90 percent of millennials own smartphones, the number drops to under 40 percent for those over age 65.

If you try to persuade an elderly relative into getting more connected with technology, understand that your efforts may be a double-edged sword. While you might feel frustrated that your parents can’t see your latest tweet every 10 seconds, it can be dangerous to throw an inexperienced user into the depths of the technological wasteland without the right equipment. Someone just learning to navigate the Internet is a minnow swimming with sharks. The elderly are high-value targets by scammers for this very reason.

The key to getting seniors connected while keeping them safe is to find a happy medium, a device that allows the new user to experience what technology has to offer without creating frustration or danger.

One option is a type of computer designed for the elderly. Companies such as Telikin and The Wow Computer have popped up recently, selling computers with ultrasimplified user interfaces to get seniors performing basic tasks such as sending emails and browsing the web. Telikin claims it’s “the world’s easiest computer.” The Wow Computer advertises that its product is “so easy to use, you won’t have to ask your children or grandchildren for help.”

But do these products do the job? Are they worth the price?

These computers often come in the form of all-in-one touchscreen units with large-print icons designed to make navigation easy. If you want to send an email, you just push the big button that says “E-Mail.” Press “Search” and the user can open a web browser. It’s all reminiscent of a late-’90s AOL interface. It makes basic tasks effortless while preventing the user from feeling that he or she may break something.

What’s under the hood? As it turns out, these machines are similar and share similar prices. The Telikin Elite II holds an MSRP of $1,249. That’s almost as much as a new i7 iMac. If you’re expecting similar components to the iMac, however, think again. The Telikin Elite II comes equipped with an Intel Celeron processor, a 500GB SATA hard drive and a mere 2GB of RAM.

These are extremely low-budget parts for a 2015 computer. A traditional desktop with these same components sells for around $200 at Wal-Mart.

Perhaps the custom operating system justifies the other $1,049? As it turns out, all these machines run versions of Linux, the free open-source operating system used on everything from desktops to DVRs. The manufacturer has simply added a user interface to an existing framework.

On the plus side, Linux is generally extremely secure and has a lower malware risk than Windows or Mac computers. Even so, while these systems may indeed make using the Internet easier for seniors, it’s hard to justify needless spending on old hardware and free operating systems. Everything offered by these machines can be replicated at home for a fraction of the cost.

Because Linux is free, you can legally download your flavor (known as a “distribution”) of choice, burn it onto a CD or DVD, and install it on almost any PC — even one with relatively poor specs. There are even Linux distributions preconfigured for the elderly, such as “Eldy Linux,” which has the very same kind of simplified, large button interface. With a $100 Craigslist, computer and a free copy of Eldy Linux, the same experience of a Telikin can be re-created for next to nothing. Even paying a technology consultant to do the installation is far cheaper than buying a specialized computer for seniors.

Want to try it yourself? The official documentation for Ubuntu, the most common Linux distribution, offers a straightforward tutorial on how to turn a downloaded distribution into a Linux installation disc. Check it out at https://help.ubuntu.com/community/BurningIsoHowto.

A decade ago, today’s world of Internet-connected refrigerators, wireless battery charging, and the ubiquitous social encouragement to publicly share every thought would have felt like the setting of a science-fiction novel. At the turn of the millennium, the worst trap a user could expect to fall into was replying to an email from a foreign prince wanting to share bank accounts. Today malware can automatically install itself onto a computer, silently conduct a wire transfer, and then use that device to hack somebody else — no prince required.

For seniors, a simplified Linux system might be a viable alternative to a traditional computer both in security and user-friendliness. Read beyond the advertising and examine exactly what you’re buying, or you might waste money on a Pinto advertised as a Porsche. Install Linux yourself or hire a competent tech person to do so, and you’ll end up with a better product at a fraction of the cost.

Written in collaboration with Dylan Evans, Reveal’s vice president of operations.

This article originally appeared on the IdahoStatesman website.