Alzheimers and Smartphones. Friends or Foe?

A black and white cartoon of an older woman holding a smartphone in one hand and a cane in the other.
Alzheimers and Smartphones. Friends or Foe?

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.

Friendly Smartphone!

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.

Over-Friendly Smartphone…

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.

Does Screen Size Matter?

Is it the small screen or a small attention span when it comes to a digital meeting?!

A hand holds up a phone and on their phone is a Zoom meeting with four pictures of people. There is also a yellow coffee cup in the picture.
Does the Screen Size Matter for the Meeting?
photo credit: Angela Lang, CNET

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My colleague and I were on a conference call together, but she took the meeting from home on her computer, while I joined in from my home, and over my phone. When it was over and we compared notes, she had lots of observations and remembered interesting points that were relevant for our company. I could barely recall any. Was it me, or was it that I used my phone to connect and screen size does matter? Neal, San Francisco

Dear Neal: Your question is reminiscent of that old Marshall McLuhan expression that “the medium is the message.”  At one time everyone used desktop computers for meetings, but now they have moved on to smaller screens and laptops. Is it the screen size that makes a difference or what McLuhan called hot and cold media? We will never know as McLuhan died before the invention of smartphones.

Chances are if you took the call on your phone, you were also wearing headphones and walking around. Mobile phones are by definition ‘mobile,’ but when we move about, we rely on our operating faculties, many of them at a sub-conscious level, to stay upright and not trip over things. We are not aware of our divided attention, since it takes place at an automatic level. As this column often notes, mobility and smartphones don’t play well together in cars or on foot. So, the mobility factor might explain why the conference call had more depth for your colleague. 

Small IS NOT BETTER

Another factor could be that you missed detail on the smaller screen of the phone. Imagine that you streamed the play Hamilton to your phone. Yes, you would see if Aaron Burr was on center stage and perhaps get his lyrics, but you probably would not be able to register Thomas Jefferson and the mob moving about in the background.  When you use a small screen to conference, you might hear the speakers, but miss the sidelines.

Some confirmation comes from a recent University of Michigan/Texas A&M study. The researchers found that participants reading news on their phone screens were “less attentive and activated” by what they saw. Now, that may not be what happened in your online meeting, but you get the drift.

Big Conventions Too!

There are also conventions built into how we use the phone, as well as how we interact with the computer. When we use phones,  it’s not unusual to scroll and open a new screen when we are interrupted by the ping of an incoming text message. Workers between ages 25 and 34 spend 6.4 hours a day checking their email, and you might have been distracted out of sheer habit.

Finally, I can’t leave the topic without suggesting that you and your colleague  might have begun the meeting with different frames of mind. She may have begun with high expectations, and that led her use the laptop, and perhaps (we don’t know) take notes on a piece of paper or alt screen. You may have approached the conference with other priorities, and that led you to pre-select the phone. We like to think that the medium (the technology) is making the choices for us, but that’s not always the full picture, pun intended. 

Can Older People be Influencers?

Older people are on Facebook. Are they stoked to be social media influencers too?

This is a graphic by Francis Scialabba. It depicts a megaphone poking out of the screen of a smartphone. The  graphic suggests that phones use devices to be attention grabbers.
Credit: Francis Scialabba. Calling all Influencers!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I liked the career advice for the teen who wanted to be a social media influencer, but what about older people?! I am in my late seventies and am tired of those ads on TV where famous people with gray hair pitch drugs for aches and pains or reverse mortgages. Can’t I be an influencer too? I am on Facebook almost every day. Vera, Tiburon

Dear Vera: You are absolutely right that influencer marketing is aimed towards younger people, mostly those under age 30, while TV ads target “pills” and “poopers.”

Posting on Facebook falls in a different category, even though it is media and you said you check it regularly. Chances are your account is private, and you have a circle of friends and family that you post for. You are connecting with them, but not trying to get unknown people and strangers to also interact through messages or photos. Facebook is the most commonly used social media by people over 60. Pew reports that 37% of the Silent Generation and 60 percent of the Baby Boomers had accounts, and that was before the Covid Pandemic. Facebook is good for keeping up social connections. Think of it like the newsy Christmas Card that keeps coming all year!

Influentials vs. Influencers

There’s a modern-day distinction between influencers and influential older people. There are many older people who make headlines and do important things (think Dr. Fauci, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oprah Winfrey, Maye Musk). These famous names will show up in a list when you search for seniors who are/have been influencers but they do less “pitch” on social media.

They are not influencers, in the social media sense of the word. A social media maven creates content, and a brand, say ‘Warby Parker’ or ‘Toyota’, then associates with them because it draws in like-minded people they would like to reach. BTW, there is probably a marketing agency in the middle of this transaction, holding the marriage together with contracts and revenue. Just this week, there was an announcement that some brands will try to initiate the content and post it on the influencer’s site, after getting their permission. That could corrupt the influencer process, as it stands today.

Quirky TUrkeys

When I searched for older, senior influencers, I was a struck by two things. There are lists of older people who are ‘top ten’ online. But, many of these are quirky older people who are experienced with attention-getting from their former careers as models or fashion designers. They struck me as odd birds in their psychedelic outfits and feathered costumes. They defied my stereotype of age, but not necessarily in a good way. Second, these leaders did less connecting ‘your brand to their content’– the way that modern kids do through a daily vlog or diary. These influencers seemed more like narcissists trapped parroting a campy narrative to copy youngsters. Many were not displaying that cool “authentic voice.”

My concern is that younger people, and those in charge of the advertising machinery, view these older influencers as a curiosity. They are something to be oogled, not because their content is a shared slice of daily life, but because the jarring images covertly reinforce a young person’s game, a hip image-based culture.

REFOCUS THAT IMAGE, Please!


More specifically, older people are not shown showing their strengths. In the words of MIT author/researcher Joseph Coughlin, they control up to seventy percent of the nation’s consumer spending, and are a trillion-dollar component of the economy. Older people have untapped consumer power. They also have a lot social media savvy, but it’s trapped in static messages on Facebook and captured less on video. Only the outspoken have jumped to younger platforms like Tik-Tok, Snap, and YouTube, perhaps because each site begins with cameras and a steep learning curve.