Tablets and seniors

September 30, 2013

I recently purchased a tablet, loaded it up with some apps and some books, then took it with me to Bali earlier this month for a weeks’ rest and relaxation. I spent the week in Bali with my parents (both in their 80s).

A few years ago my parents purchased Kindles for their trips away (long plane flights, cruises, Bali, etc.) and they loved them. For the first time in his life, my Dad finally spent time reading books (I think he’s read more books in the two years he’s had his Kindle than he’s read in his previous 81 years!). The ability to change font size and contrast and the ease of use and purchase were features that they loved.

But they were both fascinated with my tablet and all the things they could do on one (compared to a Kindle), and less than a week after returning from Bali, they had purchased a Samsung Galaxy Tab3 each.


Yesterday, I drove to their house to help them set up their tablets and to show them how to do some things, including finding and installing apps from the Google Play Store, loading up their Kindle books etc. I thought this would be a painful process, as I recall how hard it was to teach Dad how to use a mouse and getting the double-click action right, as well as when to double-click and when to single-click (I’m still not sure he’s got that right after all these years).

What a pleasant surprise! Instead of this being a painful experience with all of us getting frustrated, it was super easy for the most part. Why? Well, I think it comes down to a few factors:

  • They really picked the movements up quickly. Swiping, pinching, flicking, tapping etc. are such natural movements of the hand, compared to manipulating and clicking a mouse. While my parents don’t have much arthritis in their hands, they do have a little, but compared to mousing, navigating the tablet was just natural and easy for them.
  • Downloading apps is a breeze and requires no specialist knowledge, and isn’t fraught with warning messages or asking about file paths etc. It just happens. Likewise updating apps.
  • Changing font size is easy. Unlike printed books with fixed font sizes, changing the font size on a PDF or Kindle book is simple on a tablet. Yes, you can do it on a computer too, but you have to know the technique to increase/decrease the font size — with the tablet it’s a quick flick out with two fingers, or a pinch. For aging eyes, being able to adjust the font size of what you’re reading is an absolute boon.
  • Some aggregation apps are just brilliant. My Dad is interested in a particular make of car and on the computer he has some sites bookmarked or memorized and he goes to them regularly. But I don’t think he extends his searches much beyond that. Flipboard was already pre-installed on their tablets, so I showed them how to use it, how to search for stuff they’re interested in, and how to save a category so that they get the news feeds about that thing. Dad was in heaven! All this information about his favorite car brand in a simple magazine-style format — with pictures. He would have seen almost none of that information in his very narrow computer searches, so he was very happy.
  • Camera and portable gallery of photos. I’ve mostly seen older people using tablets as their ‘brag book’ of photos of their kids/grandkids, their house/garden, and their hobbies (e.g. quilts they have made). There’s nothing wrong with that! It’s a perfect device for it, and the ability to zoom in on an image is great.
  • The amount of apps that are word puzzles, card games, brain games, matching games, and all sorts of other games is amazing. And for aging bodies, these games can be such a help for keeping their brains active and stimulated. Also, while many games can be played with others around the world, most can also be played solo. My Mum loves Scrabble, but my Dad doesn’t. So Mum has to wait for me to stay before she gets a chance to play Scrabble (and then we feel guilty as neither my Dad nor my husband are Scrabble players so we feel we’re excluding them). But with a Scrabble-like game on her tablet, Mum can now play ‘against the computer’ to her heart’s content, as well as play other word puzzle games that she loves. Dad likes playing Solitaire and other card games on their computer, but when he’s on it, Mum can’t use the computer too (they only have one computer), but now both of them can play Solitaire or whatever other game they want on their own tablets without even turning on the computer, let alone jostling for time on it.

There are a couple of downsides though, mostly related to the status bar: tiny icons (with no easy way to find out what each one means — I spent a bit of time explaining the bars on a WiFi icon and I had no clue what some other icons were!); the color contrast — or lack of it — of these icons (dark gray on black at a tiny size just can’t be seen by anyone with less than 20/20 vision); and the difficulty aging hands have in pulling down the status bar to reveal further information.

Despite these usability issues, during my fours hours with my parents and their tablets, I came to the realization that tablets a BRILLIANT device for older people (actually, anybody!) — for reading at a font size that they can actually read, for brain games, for interests they wouldn’t normally find easily via internet searches (e.g. via Flipboard), etc., and all without having to ‘know about the computer’ or how to manipulate a pointing device.

I’m glad they got one each — in just two days, I think they are already using them far more than they ever used their computer in the same amount of time. My job was to connect them to their WiFi, show them how to download apps, show them how to use things such as Skype and email, etc.

But I learned so much more by watching them take to these devices like ducks to water.


  1. My parents also prefer their tablet to a computer/laptop. I think they find applications easier to understand and deal with than files and programs. “Tap” also seems to be easier for them than “click.”

    I recently set my mom up with amazon.com and the Kindle app for her ipad. She was using it with no problem within a few minutes. Both of my parents have anxiety about “messing it up” when they use a computer…this disappears when they are happily tapping away on a tablet.

  2. I’ve also seen someone take to a tablet. They were not as old as your parents but they were not experienced computer users.

    In addition to the uses you mentioned they found out how to check out where movies were showing and for starting times. They also managed to find foreign language newspapers to read.

    They now want a mini ipad because the full size is a bit heavy to carry around.

    I think tablets are excellent for people of any age who have not used computers but find they need emails and internet access.

  3. There’s something basically intuitive about touch screen tablet operation. It isn’t only the older generation who can take to it ‘like a duck to water’. My 2 year old granddaughter immediately took to using the iPad touch screen to run the child friendly software and games that my wife (who is an expert in the Early Childhood’ area) already had loaded on her iPad. Almost no instruction and she was away – and of course she can’t read. (My granddaughter, that is, not my wife!)

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