Cell Phones for an Aging Population: Potential Solutions

By: Christine Peppler

Cell phones have become the primary method of voice communication. These devices are credited with saving lives based on their easy, immediate access at all times. As cell phones have evolved however, they have taken on a multitude of other functions; acting as cameras, MP3 players, computers, television, and so forth. Increased complexity has been the result of these expanding functions while the physical size of the devices has been shrinking steadily. For a significant portion of the population, this has created problems in using cell phones.

At some point in middle age, people begin to experience a gradual decline in physical/motor skills, hearing, and vision. This occurs in part because of aging and is exacerbated at times due to certain illnesses that are more prevalent in the elderly. Because their abilities differ from that of the population targeted by tech developers, "advancements" have actually hindered the accessibility for older individuals. The independence and safety of this portion of the population could be significantly increased by technology products that were designed with their needs in mind. With the 2000 US Census reporting nearly 27% of the population to be 50 years of age or older and 12% over age 65, there would seem to be a significant market need for cell phones of different design.

Certainly surveying the potential market would be a good starting point to identify design needs. Such a market survey should include not only individuals in the upper age categories but also the millions of family caretakers and health care providers who have a vested interest in the well being of older individuals. A list of just a few of the potential beneficial features might include:

&bull An increase in the overall size of the cell phone

&bull A change in shape or material to assure an easy, secure grasp

&bull Materials and construction to resist damage when dropped

&bull Larger LCD screens with larger fonts; color and contrast to enhance visibility

&bull Functions/features that can be accessed/used with fewer keystrokes

&bull Larger keypad, larger buttons/keys with larger print

&bull Lower pitched ring tones with adjustable volume

&bull Hearing aid compatibility

&bull Greater ability to increase speaker volume.

Other models might be designed for those with more significant motor or hearing problems. Use of a flashing light to alert the user to a call received in addition to the ring tone could reduce missed calls and phones with voice activation and a "loudspeaker" could reduce the motor demands and better ability to hear callers.

Although not everyone over the age of 65 would wish to forgo all of the bells and whistles, in many instances a more simplified cell phone with fewer functions would be welcomed. There is certainly a portion of the population over 65 and well under it also, that would prefer a phone that allows them to make and receive phone calls exclusively; with a minimum of button pushing. At one extreme, the ability to access just a few preprogrammed numbers with a single button, including 911 is the only need. Obviously cell phones, with these limited features should be supported by cellular plans that offer less talk time and lower costs.

Even for those who do opt for multi-functioning cell phones, different features might rank higher on the list of wants and needs for this segment of the population. Perhaps a feature to act as a medication reminder, the ability to monitor blood sugar or blood pressure, or even as a GPS device for eyes that have difficulty with focusing on maps might be preferred over the ability to download and listen to music.

Another consideration that might make cell phones more marketable and useful to an older population is to assure the quality of the signal and voice reception. Hearing aid compatibility can reduce unnecessary noise that occurs for those with hearing aids but boosting overall signal quality would benefit all users as distortion, break up, and dropped calls affect everyone.

Finally, it would also be important to assure that any model cell phones developed should be available locally in brick and mortar businesses or should offer a trial period of 30 days. Having the ability to put hands on these devices and operate them is important for anyone who is apprehensive or unsure of their ability or desire to operate them. Such individuals may be reticent to order their cell phone via telephone or online sight unseen.

Certainly, the physical skills, interest level, and needs of older individuals will vary significantly from person to person, but to target this population in marketing research would do much to reveal the features that would make a more "senior friendly" cell phone a successful and highly useful device.

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