Dear Ms. Smartphone: Would a smartphone help my Aunt who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease? Right now she has a landline and a flip phone but I am considering giving her my old smartphone instead of trading it in. Then I can send her pictures and images, plus plug her into more social media. The rest of my family doesn’t see it this way. They think the smartphone will just make her feel worse. I am wondering what you would do and if Alzheimers and smartphones make sense together? Cecelia, Boston
Dear Cecilia: Thanks for the useful question. Many people are in your shoes wondering if digital tools can improve the care for older adults. I would begin with a face-value assessment to evaluate if your Aunt is smartphone ready. Does she have the mental faculties to follow digital commands? Does she have good-enough eyesight to see text on a small screen, and is she free from palsy or hand -shakes? As you seek out information, keep in mind that I am not a medical doctor and you should ask a gerontologist to weigh in. There’s actually an app, or a purported app, that can help doctor’s spot signs of Alzheimer’s.
Assuming your Aunt passes your face-value test, try communicating with her on a regular basis, using the smartphone. Since social isolation and loneliness often accompany the decline in memory loss, keeping in regular touch might be a healthy intervention. You might text her, send pictures, or try to engage her on Facebook. Here is an academic paper that prescribes both companionship and memory training over the smartphone to slow down the cognitive decline. Perhaps you can tap your personal knowledge of your Aunt’s social groups and family’s stories to help retain connections and memories.
If your Aunt is at an early stage of dementia, you could also use the phone, or even better a smart watch, to map her spatial movements. This might help if she’s not supposed to drive a car or gets lost when she goes out. You can set up a “geo-fence” alert so that you don’t have to monitor her whereabouts all the time.
At a later stage of dementia, having a smartphone, actually any phone, could be worrisome. As the disease progresses, your Aunt might get lonely or paranoid, and hence more susceptible to soothing messages from an outside caller. There are evil telemarketers and the like who take advantage of people who are not in full command of their mental faculties.
I often lecture on taking the keys away from older people when they are no longer capable drivers- and can happily point to rideshare as a substitute. If you need to take away the phone and electronic devices, I imagine there will be tech-backups you want to explore, like a voice activated 911 device, blocking of online accounts and passwords, and ‘beeper reminders’ to take medications. I hope all goes well for you and your Aunt.