Apple Watch for Seniors?

The apple watch, series 6.0. The watch screen displays the date, time, weather, and a cartoon icon of a boy. It has a blue watch band.
Seniors and the Apple Watch, Series 6

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Saw your post about the Apple watch and raising free-range kids. Great idea if my kids were younger. But I have a Dad who is a free-range elder! He lives alone in a big house, it’s nearby. He is fairly healthy and still drives, but I worry. What if he takes a fall when he climbs up the ladder to clean the leaves or sweep the pool? He is used to carrying a smartphone, so should I get him the watch? Fernando, Ross

Dear Fernando: You Dad sounds like an independent spirit so he may not see the need for this new gizmo. Up to now, older people have not been sold on these Dick Tracy watches, and research finds that they discontinue use (it goes back in the box) within three to six months.

However, if you can impress on your Dad that the watch will let him stay independent and healthy, then he might keep it on for good. The pandemic has accelerated technology and services that were always on the horizon for older people. Make sure that he has the digital skills and is not afraid to ask questions about privacy and Family Setup settings.

Not a Dongle!

You mentioned ladders and falls. I’ve noticed that when old people go out, and this holds more for women than men, they clutch their purse and keep checking to make sure it’s there. This tends to throw them off balance, and makes them less stable on their feet. Anything that eliminates the need to tote bags and paraphernalia seems like a good idea.

Lots of well-meaning sons and daughters sign their parents up for wireless dongles that older people are meant to wear like a necklace. Should they take a fall, or have an emergency, there’s one button to press that connects to 911. The problem is that older people pleasantly “forget” to wear these things- it’s an acknowledgement of frailness.

So, the watch has an advantage. Dad will not have to wear the dongle and with the Series 6 , he will not even to carry a phone, assuming it is connected to your plan. He can sport a device that is equally coveted by an athletic runner, a busy Mom, or a gadget-geek.

Whose Well-Being?

If you have a recent iPhone you will notice an app you can’t delete called Apple Health. The new watch was designed so that Apple did not need to get FDA approval as a medical device but it does many of the functions like monitor blood oxygen levels and take an ECG. It will also do some level of fall detection. These measures are not completely accurate though- so they should not substitute for trips to the doctor. Still, the watch can help your Dad’s well being…if he allows it. But, the best medicine for an older person is reaching out and staying in relationships, so if this watch helps you and Dad maintain that over the years, it’s a fine timepiece.

Phones & Disaster

twitter posts from California fires (Sept. 30).

Dear Ms. Smartphone: It’s a disaster. My wife and I had to evacuate our home this week because of nearby fires. Now I am getting inundated with texts and calls from far-away friends and distant relatives who want updates. I know that we should be grateful, but we are getting worn down responding to each message and reliving the trauma. It’s just so emotionally draining. Can’t these people just wait? Moira and Myron, Sonoma

Dear M & M: The primary thing is safety, and as you said, you are thankful you made it out. It is stressful wondering what you left behind and if you can go back. It is hard to settle in a temporary locale and pick up the pieces.  And then there is your social network, reverberating. There is no digital etiquette here and no rules of response.

Inflamed Media

The people who are calling mean well but they  are probably “inflamed” by social media. It’s hard for someone far away and without information to not react to what they see and hear on social medial. See the picture (above). It got reposted 73 times and there were 186 people who “liked it”. Perhaps someone who called you viewed these pics- what they saw is unfiltered and unedited.  ‘Citizen- journalism’ as this is called is useful but it lacks the perspective, distance, and context we get from a professional newscast. 

This type of reporting is enabled by our smartphones, as they allow us to take “on the spot” photos and send “in the moment” texts. The speed of the citizen journalist has to be balanced with the slower, but more comprehensive reporting of traditional news media. But, that’s not for your friends and family to sort out. It’s a larger societal issue about how we use media and the sources we find trustworthy and useful.

For now, consider using your smartphone to take a quick picture of your safe relocation, maybe with family or pets?  Then attach the picture to an email or text with a canned greeting that says, “ As you can see, we safely evacuated on (date) and are now back in (location). Not to worry. We will get back in touch when the dust settles and the ashes subside.” Or, post it to your Facebook page. It’s a digital reaction to a digital blowup.

Confront DIgital With Digital

While you may feel like silencing your phone, remember that these devices are incredibly useful during a natural disaster. You probably received the alert to evacuate over your phone, not from a public address system or a neighbor knocking on the door. You probably found the safest, least congested route to leave by consulting the GPS enabled traffic map. Note in the image (above) there is useful information for evacuees needing meals. Consumer Reports (CR) recently published a list of digital tips for electronic devices during an emergency. Among them are keeping your devices fully charged- with public safety alerts turned on, having a car- charging cable, stashing an extra power strip, and abstaining from power hungry apps and settings that drain the battery, such as WiFi on the road.

CR goes on to say that if you need to call 911, don’t hang up. During a disaster, the phone queue can be long. In some locations you can text to 911, but emergency officials caution that a conventional call from a 911 call from a cell phone or a landline should be your first move, not the Facebook plea for assistance. The end-run to Facebook brings us right back to the original question you posed. 


In closing, note that many people are not aware that the phone network and electrical power are interconnected. When the electricity gets knocked out, many landlines work not operate because the  backup batteries fail, or more centrally, the fiber-optics are compromised. Placing a call from any device may depend on connecting to a  cell phone tower but it could be damaged too. The telephone companies and cable crews are the new first-responders.  God bless in the coming days.

Family Setup Good Idea?

(this is not a picture of the actual watch)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I’d like to give my eight year old more independence since he stays indoors all day for home-schooling. But, I also think he is too young to get his own phone. If he goes on his bike or walks to the nearby store I want to know he gets there safely and does not get into trouble. There are not many kids his age in our neighborhood  to hang out with so I worry when he is out and about.  Kelly, Tiburon

Dear Kelly: It’s funny how we now conflate independence with phones.  There are probably less dangers out there than you imagine, but it comes back to your son and his level of maturity.  Back in 2011, a Mom/journalist in NYC started a movement called “free range kids.” The idea is that kids are allowed to play outside or go alone on short trips alone so they learn to be creative and self-sufficient and solve problems if they arise. The founders stress that this is not the same  as “Permissive Parenting.”

Optimized for Kids and…

Depending how you feel about phones and the cost of adding a new phone line, there is a tech solution. Apple just introduced a gadget  called “Family Setup.” It’s is a phone- watch Apple says that is optimized for younger children and seniors!  If you want to know your son’s whereabouts, or grandma’s, that will display on your iphone map. You can  also call or text them from your phone. That sounds like it would do the job.

 Apple’s Family Setup is not the first device to provide a geofence and parental controls (see link for Android) but it will give you more features. The promo material says you can send cash via Apple Pay, so imagine sending your son to the store to pick up a few things on your shopping list! Maybe, have him bring back a newspaper or magazine- something to read together! Or use the feature to set a weekly allowance, and track how it is allocated.

Exercising Choices!

Since children are spending so much time indoors these days, you might test out the feature called the “activity center” (and let me know if it works). It’s like a Fitbit that tracks exercise routines. It then digitally lauds the effort with emoji coaching and milestones.  Since your son is at home and missing recess he might enjoy this.  On the other hand, will he exercise for the intrinsic satisfaction of keeping fit or as a token to share with friends? If the latter, it may unwittingly progress into oversharing on social media at a very young age.

There are pros and cons to Family Setup.  Until we all got smartphones, reaching the teen years meant becoming increasingly self reliant and self-contained, the concept of the ‘free range-kids.’  I honestly don’t know if our connected devices will help parents or  undermine the core values they need to teach. And, will kids who get these watches soon pine for full phones instead?  Finally, our relationships are so fragile these days, so what will happen  if the “family” splits- is it just Mom or just Dad or Grandpa that becomes the watch-keeper?