Convincing my 79-year-old dad to try his first smartphone went surprisingly well
When it comes to phones, Michael Hicks (my dad) compared himself to Gibbs from NCIS. Not the murder-solving or boat-building aspects of his life, but how he also hates relying on technology and prefers keeping things simple. It's not strictly true; my dad spends hours a day reading biographies and mystery novels on his Kindle Fire HD, plus streaming some Murdoch Mysteries on the side. But in most other respects, he avoids new technology like the plague.
Case in point: my father has used a flip phone for about a decade, and I'm not talking about a new-fangled foldable smartphone here. He got a Pantech Breeze III back in 2011, around the time I got my first iPhone, and he kept using it until this year, when AT&T shipped him a free Cingular Flip IV because it was deprecating its 3G network.
Because of his technological aversion and general disinterest in smartphones, I've never been able to text with my dad (do you remember how obnoxious texting was on a keypad?), making it hard to get in touch with him when I don't have time to call. So given my new professional focus on the best Android phones, I thought I'd use this editorial as justification to sit down with my dad, show him how smartphones work, and convince him how useful one would be for his daily life.
All in all, it was a mixed bag. I found plenty of apps that would appeal to him, and in the end, he did admit he should finally get a proper smartphone. But there were plenty of "overwhelming" or "frustrating" aspects to smartphones that he wouldn't be able to navigate without my or my mom's help. At least not without plenty of practice.
Re-appreciating the magic of smartphones
I drove home with a bundle of Android phones — a Pixel 3a, OnePlus 7 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S9, and a Nokia G20 I recently reviewed — plus my old iPhone for backup. I suspected he would prefer a larger screen like the G20 or 7 Pro has, but I wondered if he would prefer flat or curved screens, and whether he would gravitate to Android 11 or Android 12.
But I also knew a smartphone newbie wouldn't appreciate the finer details, so I focused on showing him the appeal of the best Android apps. Instead of relying on the newspaper or TV for gradual information, or hunting-and-pecking on a laptop to look something up, he could access what he wanted in just a few taps. Or, even better, I could set up widgets for him, so he could see all the info he needed without having to hunt for it.
My dad checks the newspaper's national weather forecasts every day to see the conditions in cities where family members live, so I downloaded The Weather Channel and showed him how he could "favorite" certain city results. Next, I downloaded his bank and cable bill apps and showed how he could check balances or pay for monthly charges quite easily. He told me it seemed very convenient, but he'd miss going to the bank and talking to the tellers.
Since he enjoys Kindle and Prime Video apps so much on his Fire HD, I showed him how easy it is to read or watch his favorite content on a phone. The 5.6-inch Pixel 3a was too small for him — with a large enough text size for his eyes, it didn't fit enough words per page — but the 6.5-inch Nokia G20 worked. He liked the idea of reading while out and about without having to lug his Amazon tablet with him.
What really blew my dad away was the Google Assistant button on the G20. He loved having the option to ask it for sports results, and he preferred asking it for weather results than finding and opening the app. I showed him how to ask Google Assistant to start playing his favorite classical orchestras and concertos, which he appreciated even if the phone speakers didn't do them justice.
Once he accidentally tapped a "Tell me a joke" suggested response, he enjoyed the voice assistant tech more because it felt more like a friendly person he could ask for help. I took all of this as a good sign that he might be receptive to getting a smartphone. Then again, it seemed equally likely he'd enjoy a smart speaker or smart display instead — something built for providing hands-free information, without worrying about a tricky touchscreen.
Because as much as my dad enjoyed the benefits that smartphones provide, Android can be hard to master even for the tech-savvy but especially for the tech-averse.
Tricky tapping with no guidance
Believe it or not, my dad's new flip phone has Google Assistant and some other apps along with 4GB of RAM, not terrible for a $60 phone. But I personally took a long time figuring out how to access the apps, because I'd forgotten how to properly use a keypad nav system. For my dad, using a modern smartphone was a similar experience; he has no frame of reference for what gestures work or what to do if something goes wrong.
You know where to swipe your fingers to scroll a browser or to swipe out of an app. But my dad would swipe from the edge of the screen, exit an app, and not know how to get back; or he would start his swipe from the top banner of Chrome, then get frustrated that nothing moved. More importantly, many apps' or OS menus' buttons are way too small to tap easily when your hands aren't as steady as they used to be.
My dad's a super-smart guy, and he already figured out how to use Android-based Fire tablets on his own. But Amazon's limited app library and features made for a much more curated experience. Smartphones add more features using much less screen real estate, so each tap or gesture must be more accurate and informed. The more choices and customization options, the more a phone could be overwhelming for the unprepared.
A physical back button is obsolete compared to gesture controls, but gestures are only intuitive if you're accustomed to them. Something like an iPhone SE is way too last-gen for many of us, but it could be a better fit for my dad because it has a simple, eye-catching escape button if he taps the wrong thing. On the other hand, it's probably too small for him.
Choosing the best phones for seniors
Right off the bat, my dad's priorities for a smartphone differ wildly from most of our readers. For starters, he doesn't care much about battery life. Most of his outings are a few hours at most, and even if he's out all day, he's not going to use it that much away from home. So a battery workhorse like the G20 is mostly superfluous for him. He's also not going to care about getting the latest Snapdragon or Dimensity chipset; he's no gamer, and older or budget chipsets were plenty responsive to his Google Assistant questions.
Screen size is a tricky tightrope to walk. He preferred the larger screen sizes of the OnePlus 7 Pro and Nokia G20 for sight and navigation, but he also likes the idea of a phone he can carry while he goes for his daily runs. He's alternated between a Walkman, a portable radio, and an iPod Nano over the years, but a phone that can track his runs and pull up any music track with a command sounds appealing to him. So he needs a screen large enough for large text but small enough to hold comfortably.
As a side note, he thinks curved-edge displays look bad and make phones harder to hold, which shows you don't need to be an expert to drop some truth bombs. So whatever phone I help him pick, it'll likely be flat, with a grippy case or PopSocket added to help him keep a good hold on it.
So here I sit, trying to figure out which should be my dad's first smartphone. I myself only recently switched to Android, but my family still uses iOS. If my dad's buying this so we all can message him, an iPhone would likely be better. Then again, an iPhone seems overqualified and overpriced for what my dad needs. I could probably buy him something like a Pixel 5a or Moto G Power at half the cost that will still make him much happier than his flip phone.
Do you have any recommendations for the best phones for seniors? Have you helped your elderly parents pick out smartphones in the past, and do you know what worked for them? Let me know in the comments!
Stock Android for seniors
Picking something simple and reliable
The senior in your life doesn't need flagship tech. A Pixel 5a 5G will give them a large, bright screen for easier typing and seeing it outdoors; extra-long battery life so they're not left without a way to contact you, and fast AI performance for asking Google Assistant questions. And it'll get at least 3 years of software support, so it'll last a while.
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Michael spent years freelancing on every tech topic under the sun before settling down on the real exciting stuff: virtual reality, fitness wearables, gaming, and how tech intersects with our world. He's a semi-reformed Apple-to-Android user who loves running, D&D, and Star Wars. Find him on Twitter at @Michael_L_Hicks.
1- start simple. Don't try to have them do everything a smartphone can do, just the basics to start with: calling/texting, messaging, social media, weather, simple games, news.
2- lots of them are already proficient with a tablet. Set up and teach them about the phone's hotspot function, so the "what's your wifi password" hunt whenever they're at friends'... dies.
3- most of the success is hard work. import their contacts, email accounts, bank accounts, utilities, lock up the home screen, get remote access at least to their accounts (if possible to their phones)...
4- for extreme cases, BIG Launcher works very well, ditto the companion BIG SMS and... there's another one.
5- Bottom nav buttons are a must-have. Some launchers/OEMs still have the option.
6- Assistants are hit-or-miss, lots of people can't grok the need to enunciate clearly w/o ahing and mmming, loud TV in the background is an issue...
1 Windows desktop
2 Windows laptops
2 Surface Pros
2 other brand Windows 8" and 10" tablets
5 Windows phones
2 Android phones
2 Android tablets When I went to the phone store to get my first smartphone in, 2012 I think, I walked up to an Android phone and couldn't figure out what all those very similar looking icons meant, let alone be able to see them well. Same thing with the iPhone. I walked up to the Windows phone. I looked at the screen. There was a box with a telephone in it big enough for me to see what it was unequivocally. Same for Mail and enough of the rest that my decision was made for me by the ease of use. Good suggestions above for making it readable, simple, and easy to handle. Several of my out of service phones are used as "tiny tablets" and emergency dialers in areas of the house, just set up on the home wifi. That's a good way to introduce whichever phone and OS without pressure.
Guess I'm too old to hike in bear country too, too hold to pull a big trailer through the mountains of ID, WY, MT, UT, CO. Guess I'm too old to live alone, basically in the middle of nowhere.
Guess there are too many old people and too many young Whippersnappers. (Been waiting all my life to use that word, but it is now or never; might keel over dead any second.)
That said, there are people who have challenges regardless of age and it's ok to recognize that it's true for them.
To this day, not everyone has internet access, not everyone has laptops/desktops/tablets, not everyone has grown up with or worked in an environment where they could become familiar with these things, not everyone who doesn't already know where to look for tutorials and other info will be able to find it on their own, not everyone has an offspring who's able to help their dad decide whether he wants to join the revolution. So far as the writers dad goes, what might work would be to get an inexpensive 8" android tablet with LTE capability. Dad's already sort of familiar with "tablet" usage thru his Kindle. Build on that familiarity by setting up the tablet with the apps he'll use and thinks he might like. He can use it on the home wifi and play with it til he can get around and back comfortably. Then whenever he chooses a phone (this is assuming android), when he goes to set that phone up, I expect that he'll be greeted with a notice like "We see that you already have...Would you like to...?" and he'll find himself in much more familiar territory.
She's suffering from hearing loss and the accessibility features on her Samsung phone is making her daily routines a bit easier.
Some mobiles have "easy modes" which makes it a bit..well..easier to use the UI. It's a nice feature for both young and old.