Computer for Elderly Mom

sjerinDecember 3, 2006

My 86-year-old mother is still fairly independent and living on her own, with my sister a few miles away. She has expressed a little interest in a computer for email purposes, and we daughters are thinking about it too. What is the most simple computer out there? We can set it up for her but it needs to practically run itself! Does such an animal exist?

Thanks for your thoughts,


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Besides simplicity, you also need something that is very reliable. You don't want your mom to end up on the phone with impatient tech support reps thousands of miles away.

Another consideration is you need a good monitor with enough contrast for her to see well. You'll probably need to set it to use large font as its default.

You'll also need to install a good pop-up stopper and virus detector.

My step-father, who is in his 70's, bought an inexpensive Gateway computer a few years ago. The computer gave him nothing but trouble. If I lived nearby, I may have been able to go over and fix things for him, but instead, he had to pay a good deal of money to others to do his repairs.

He also wasn't very savvy about how to deal with spam. He opened attachments from strangers, used his real name when registering at websites, and used the default mail that came with his system, rather than using something like Gmail, which is far less prone to spam and virus breakthroughs.

Sorry, I know I haven't answered your specific question...

    Bookmark   December 3, 2006 at 5:24PM
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Erin, a couple years ago, we bought a WebTV for my MIL, who is now age 94 (I see from the web site that the product is now called MSN TV). My MIL insists on calling it "the wireless," although it does have wires! It's NOT a computer; the monitor is the person's TV set, and it works through a telephone line. There is a keyboard and a remote, so the user can sit comfortably on the sofa, across the room from the TV. There's no printer; however, I think it can be combined with one. It costs around $200 and requires a subscription to the web service, which is around $20 per month (my BIL's family shares the cost with us). The subscriber has access to email and the Internet. For email, she can only receive messages from people in her address book; hence, there's no spam. A little red light goes on when a message arrives. The user navigates the screen by moving a highlight box around (instead of a cursor), and the instruction booklet is very clear and simple. It's a wonderful way for my MIL to see photos of her grandchildren, check her stock portfolio, or google for information. As for reliability, she's had no problems (except those she created for herself ;-). MSN has a tech support help center.

If your mom isn't a technophobe, a real computer is probably the way to go. But if she only wants to use it for email and the web, then this device may serve her purposes well.


Here is a link that might be useful: MSN TV

    Bookmark   December 3, 2006 at 7:20PM
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Have you let her practice using yours? At 86 years old I think it would be difficult to learn. See how well she handles your computer and go from there.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2006 at 7:54PM
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We bought a computer for my elderly mother for the purpose of accessing the internet for email. In the two years she has had it, she still doesn't understand how to use it. She has had tutors and we have sat down with her (when we visit) but as soon as we leave she is lost.

Purchasing the computer was a waste of time in her case.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2006 at 9:11PM
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A Mac is probably the way to go.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2006 at 9:23PM
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Thank you all for your thoughts and ideas. Very good information from everybody! mtnester, I'm going to forward what you wrote to my sisters and see what they think of the idea; I think it's a good possiblity and I'm glad to know of its existence.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2006 at 12:36AM
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Glad I could be of help, Erin! :)

Do take a good look at the MSN site, because the newer versions seem to have different (and better) features.

Although my MIL is an intelligent woman and doesn't seem to have slipped much mentally, it's difficult for her to learn "new tricks" now that she's in her 90s. I have to admit that, at first, I thought that we'd end up feeling like hedygs, above, that it wasn't worth it. It took her a while to learn to do the basic navigating around the screen (she didn't seem to understand the concepts of "select" and then "enter" or how to go back a step---stuff that anyone familiar with a computer would know on Day 1. It took some tutoring by my 24-year-old DS and some practice on her part. But she did master it! She doesn't write many letters, but she loves to receive them...and for her kids (us), it's so much easier to write an email than an old-fashioned snail mail letter. Every year, she says she wants us to renew the subscription. So, if it's making her happy, it's worth it to us.


    Bookmark   December 4, 2006 at 1:23AM
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I just read my earlier post and in retrospect, it seems too negative. Despite some of the problems my step-dad had initially, he did learn how to navigate the web, loved email, and became wiser about avoiding pitfalls. He was unable to get around much due to his physical disabilities, and his computer helped him keep in touch with people. He also liked playing solitaire and similar games.

Sadly, I speak in the past tense. Step-dad is still with us, but he lost his eyesight in August. He really misses his computer connection to the rest of the world.


p.s. I used to know two people who got their first taste of the internet using WEB-TV. They later upgraded to a real computer, but they were pleased with WEB-TV while they had it.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2006 at 1:24AM
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I agree with chiefneil, mac would be easier, imo.... We set up my parents on a mac computer a few years ago, they were 75 then. I never thought my dad would learn but he did.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2006 at 5:56AM
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vicki_ca, I'm pretty sure there are voice-translation programs for the blind out there that allow them to work with computers. You should do a little investigation and see what's available.

    Bookmark   December 4, 2006 at 9:46AM
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Erin, I bought my mom a computer about 5 years ago, she is now 85 years old. I made certain there weren't many things on it and started her on AOL. I felt AOL was easiest to learn.

She has developed dementia, is now living in a board and care home, does not know what she had for lunch today, but,,,, she still is doing her e mail! And, she loves it. She loves getting e mail from friends who cannot travel to see her anymore. She does a lot of "forwarding" little funny things, but it makes her happy.

I bought my Mom's computer at Costco. The only time I have had a problem with it is when a grandson came to visit and who knows what he did to it. It has been no trouble at all, has not needed tech support. When I go to see her, I occasionally check it out, delete temp files, etc. I think she is on it daily.

    Bookmark   December 5, 2006 at 12:52AM
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We gave my MIL our old PowerMac when we upgraded. She did just fine, and she was in her late 80s at the time. I took my lable maker and using big print stuck labels on it with the steps on starting up and shutting down. I also drew pictures for her. She not only learned to do email, but sirfed the web to find info for a senior program she was conducting at the time. My mom also has an imac and she is doing ok with it, but not as well as my MIL did, but that is just my mom. lol

    Bookmark   December 6, 2006 at 2:57PM
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Does your mom have shaky hands? You might want to look into getting her an anti-tremor mouse.

I second the Mac idea. Also Yahoo! email. My mom uses it and my dad converted over after a few years of having his own email address through his ISP. Yahoo is VERY easy to use and has great anti-spam protection.

Here is a link that might be useful: New IBM mouse for those with shaky hands

    Bookmark   December 8, 2006 at 11:12AM
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Here's an interesting idea, from HP. The article is in yesterday's NY Times.

Here is a link that might be useful: When Grandma doesn't have an engineering degree from MIT

    Bookmark   December 9, 2006 at 2:26PM
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Barb, it seems that the device can only receive and print; it can't SEND a message, and since there's no monitor, there's no way to browse the internet. But if it fits the need, it's a good idea.


    Bookmark   December 9, 2006 at 2:54PM
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That's the whole point, not too many 86 y.o. are going to be able to handle the tech demands of a computer. Browsing the internet is no great thing anyway, unless you have a specific goal.

I worked in a CCRC (continuing care retirement community) for 3 years, so I speak from not only personal, but professional experience.

My father, an engineer (from Northeastern, not MIT), wanted to learn how to use a computer very much, and we tried setting him up several times, but even in his early 80's it was just too much for him. He had all his faculties up until his death at 91, it was just something that didn't make sense to him in some basic way, and he never could use one.

For most elderly moms/dads or grandmothers/grandfathers who have never used a computer before, this would be ideal. All they really want to do is read letters and see family pictures. Since few of us send snail mail any more, this would allow them to stay in touch with children and grandchildren who are computer literate (that's us!)

My kids would have loved to stay in touch with their grandfather with something like this, and I think he would have liked it too, having something in his hand to read and read again. He would have been able to carry them around the CCRC and show them to his friends, especially the pictures.

I have coworkers, much younger than me, who, despite many attempts, still can't figure out how to reply to email, much less send one, and they use a computer every day.

Think about how daunting it can be to learn some new technology, and imagine if you are 86 years old and trying to do it.

    Bookmark   December 9, 2006 at 3:39PM
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That's very true, Barb, and I appreciate that you're speaking from experience. The OP, Erin, might want to seriously consider whether her mom wants more than this machine offers--perhaps not. If it had been an alternative when we got my MIL the webTV, it would definitely have been in the running (especially if we had known what we do now, that she really doesn't use its full capabilities). My MIL is mentally sharp and knows how to type on a typewriter, but the computer keyboard operates a bit differently, especially with regard to backing up versus backspacing for deletions. There's also the matter of "selecting" some operation from the menu and then pressing "enter"; it seems so easy, yet it's apparently a hard concept to grasp. It took a while for her to get the hang of it. On the other hand, my MIL does like looking at the news, esp. financial news, and we've shown her how to access Morningstar, the Washington Post, etc. I don't think she really surfs the web, though we've shown her how to google. She could also shop for gifts online, now that she can't walk in a mall, but she thinks that writing a check is her only alternative (and it IS easier). Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the mindset that, since she's managed well without it all her life, she doesn't need it now. As you said, it basically makes it easier for US (her kids) to keep in touch with her. But WE've lost some skills, too: we seem to have lost the ability to pick up a pen and paper and write a letter in longhand, enclosing some photo prints of the grandkids!


    Bookmark   December 9, 2006 at 5:27PM
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Thank you all for your suggestions!! I'm sending them on to my sisters and we will all think about the possibilities for a bit and have her practice on my sister's computer. She still does secretarial work once a week for a lady for whom she's worked many years. She types fine, and is good at following directions so I think if we can write them out simply for her (that's what I needed to start!) it might be possible. Once again, thanks to everyone for the great ideas. This forum is wonderful!!

    Bookmark   December 9, 2006 at 7:56PM
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