Which cell phone should I buy for my grandmother?

By: Jonathan Strickland

Cell Phone Image Gallery The Clarity C900 cell phone has features that may appeal to senior citizens who normally avoid cell phones. See more cell phone pictures.

One of the great aspects of modern technology is how so much of it allows us to stay in touch with one another. Social networking sites like Facebook let us keep tabs on what's going on in the lives of our friends and family. Services like Twitter let us send a message to an entire collection of friends and make plans on the fly. And that's just the tip of the iceberg -- instant messaging, e-mail, voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) and video conferencing are accessible technologies that many of us depend on daily.

But there's one demographic that manufacturers traditionally have a hard time reaching: the elderly. And because manufacturers have a tough time getting a hold in that market, it's not easy for the rest of us to stay in touch with our older friends and relatives. The technology we rely on to keep us in the loop are the same gadgets and applications that older people seem to avoid.

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The reasons why technology companies aren't marketing cell phones to older adults range from physical issues such as failing eyesight and hearing to cultural barriers. While companies view baby boomers as tech-savvy consumers, the oldest members of the baby boomer generation and people born during the previous generation may not be as comfortable with modern gadgets. They may think of such devices as intimidating or too complicated to use.

­­But a gadget like a cell phone could be a great benefit to an elderly person. It can help that person maintain his or her independence. At the same time, it may even reduce their sense of isolation. According to Jamie van den Bergh of Clarity, most elderly individuals cite a fear of being in a nursing home, not a fear of death, as being the worst factor of growing older. For some senior citizens, a cell phone may allow them to continue to live on their own.

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The Clarity Phone

The back of the Clarity cell phone has a panic button.
The back of the Clarity cell phone has a panic button.

At the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a special conference called the Silvers Summit formed to discuss technology designed for senior citizens. One of the companies involved in the summit was Clarity, a division of Plantronics Inc. Clarity had introduced a new cell phone to the market just two weeks before CES. It was a cell phone designed for the senior citizen market.

It looks like a very simple cell phone. That was a deliberate design decision -- Clarity wanted to avoid creating a device that would intimidate or confuse customers. While the handset interface is straightforward, the phone has a sophisticated programming system on the back end. According to van den Bergh, Clarity designed the phone with the intention of selling it to the caregivers of elderly people.

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The Clarity phone has a textured case that makes the device easier to grip. It also has a slide-out keypad with buttons that are larger than the ones you'd find on a typical cell phone. However, you don't have to slide out the keypad to make every call. The front of the phone has four large buttons. One button is the call button, one is the end call button and the other two allow you to navigate through the phone's contact list.

The phone's oversized screen has a yellow backlight and displays contact names and numbers in a large font. Clarity chose the color yellow for the backlight because as we age, we lose visual sensitivity -- our ability to perceive certain colors starts to fail. In fact, we begin to have difficulty seeing colors belonging to the shorter wavelengths of the visible spectrum [source: Munsell Color Science Laboratory]. Yellow light has a longer wavelength , making it one of the easier colors to see.

­The National Institute on Aging says that one-third of senior citizens between the ages of 65 and 74 have hearing loss. And about half of all elderly people over the age of 85 have hearing problems. The Clarity phone incorporates an amplifier in the phone's speaker. According to the company, the amplifier makes the Clarity phone twice as loud as ordinary cell phones.

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More Clarity Features

The Clarity cell phone has a slide-out number pad.
The Clarity cell phone has a slide-out number pad.

In general, senior citizens don't make a lot of phone calls. They usually have a small list of numbers they'll call once in a while. They also don't tend to use data plan features. This makes senior citizens a low-priority demographic for most cell phone carriers. That's why Clarity markets its phones more toward the caregivers than the actual end user.

The Clarity phone is an unlocked global system for mobile telecommunication (GSM) phone. That means it should work with any cell phone carrier that supports the GSM protocol. All the consumer has to do is add a line to his or her account, get a subscriber identity module (SIM) card from the carrier, put it in the Clarity phone and hand over the phone.

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Clarity designed the phone so that caregivers can program it remotely. If an elderly user doesn't know how to add numbers to a contact list, the caregiver can handle it by sending a text message to a special number. The end user doesn't have to worry about learning a complicated programming system -- to the end user, the phone simply works.

The caregiver can also create a list of five emergency contacts that the Clarity phone can dial when an emergency panic button on the back of the device is pressed and held. Holding the button down for a few seconds causes the phone to dial the series of emergency contact numbers. When the other end of the line activates, an automated voice asks the other person to push a button to confirm that he or she is a real person. If the phone reaches voicemail or an answering machine, it hangs up and dials the next number.

In the future, phones for senior citizens may include other unique features. Mr. van den Bergh says that Clarity is working on devices that can monitor the user's environment to help caregivers keep an eye on parents and other loved ones while away. For example, future phones may have a temperature gauge designed to alert the caregiver if the temperature falls below or rises above certain limits.

­Companies like Clarity are filling an untraditional niche in the consumer technology market. But the products these companies create may help give caregivers peace of mind and senior citizens the ability to live happier, more independent lives.

To learn more about cell phones and related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.

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Lots More Information

Releated HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Clarity. http://www.clarityproducts.com
  • Munsell Color Science Laboratory. "Perception FAQ." Rochester Institute of Technology. (Jan. 28, 2009) http://www.cis.rit.edu/mcsl/outreach/faq.php?catnum=1#877
  • National Institute on Aging. "Hearing loss." August 2005. (Jan. 30, 2009) http://www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Publications/hearing.htm
  • van den Bergh, Jamie. Vice President Sales & Marketing, Clarity. Personal interview. Jan. 9, 2009.

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