Parental Tech Support: Everything you need to fix on a senior's phone

Parental Tech Support: Everything you need to fix on a senior’s phone

Adult children who do family technical support know the drill. Your parents are calling about a problem with their smartphone, maybe spam or a problem with Facebook. You try to talk them through fixing it remotely with mixed results and mutual frustration.

Next time you see your parents in person (and really, you should visit them more often), do everyone a favor. Take 30 minutes to borrow their phone and clean the house. A little maintenance now can prevent future security issues, scams, confusion, or misinformation. You’re going to weed out the old junk, fix the little glitches, and customize it so that everything is a little easier for them to see and understand.

This is advice for adult children whose parents or other older relatives use smartphones, but anyone can attempt these maintenance tasks on their own devices.

β€œThe first thing I do is check what I call check engine lights,” says Abbie Richie, founder and CEO of tech support company Senior Savvy. “I’m looking for red notification badges, especially in the Settings app.”

Apple and Google regularly release small updates and large annual updates to their smartphone, iOS and Android operating systems. Don’t avoid them, even if you’re worried about adding confusing new features. They often include key security patches and bug fixes. If you’re doing a major operating system update, schedule some time to explain the new look and options to them.

Set the phone to automatically run software updates in the future.

Delete and rearrange apps

Go page by page and ask your parents what they use and what they don’t – you’ll be surprised how many of us have installed apps we can’t remember. Delete anything that looks suspicious, fraudulent, or confusing.

Move the apps they use the most to the first screen of their device. Richie recommends putting their four most used apps in the dock at the bottom of the screen and putting all the other biggies in the top left or right corner. Move any apps they don’t use often but are useful into clearly labeled folders, then store those folders on the last page of the home screen.

Ask them if there’s anything they want to do on their phone but can’t, like online banking. Install new apps if they need to, but keep it simple and walk them through setting up anything that requires a connection. Write down any new passwords!

Make the screen easier to see

Our eyesight deteriorates with age and even the biggest phone can be difficult to read. Smartphones are full of accessibility settings you can dive into, but to start, let’s make everything a little bigger and brighter.

In Settings, increase the text size and make it bold. You can turn on a setting like iOS display zoom, which makes everything a little bigger across the board. Finally, turn the brightness up to maximum and show them how to control it themselves. Experiment by switching between light and dark modes and see if it’s easier for them to see.

Richie also suggests giving your parents more time before their phone gets locked. Instead of 30 seconds or one minute, increase the auto-lock to between 3 and 5 minutes.

Enable emergency and health settings

Add all medical conditions and allergies to the phone’s built-in emergency settings. On an iPhone, go to Medical ID in health settings. On an Android device, you can access security and emergency settings. Add emergency contacts, including people who live nearby as well as immediate relatives. Make sure this information can be viewed in an emergency, even if the phone is locked.

Many smartphones incorporate health monitoring options. On the iPhone, for example, you can turn on the gait stability notification, which can come in handy to prevent future falls. If they want you or someone else to be more involved with their health, you can set up health information sharing.

Reduce misinformation

If you’re worried about your parents falling for misinformation or becoming radicalized online, there are a few minor tweaks you can make to improve things. Pick a reputable media or app and move it to a prominent place on its home screen. Apple News and Google News both do a decent job of including a wide range of reliable news sites. Put a shortcut to a fact-checking site like Snopes on their home screen so they can quickly check any stories or social media posts they come across. Go through their social media accounts with them, if they let you. Ask if you can unsubscribe from pages or influencers who traffic in misinformation or propaganda.

How to avoid falling into the trap and spreading false information

Minimize scam attempts

Seniors are a popular target for scammers. You can change a few settings to reduce retries. We’ll walk you through them all here, but start by sending unknown calls straight to voicemail (Settings β†’ Phone β†’ Turn off unknown callers on an iPhone), filtering text messages from unknown senders, and enabling spam filters or detection offered by their telephone or cell carrier.

Go through their Facebook and Instagram friend lists and weed out any fake accounts, including people they don’t know and accounts impersonating other people. You can find more settings to change on their smartphone and messaging apps here.

Yes, it’s a scam: simple tips to help you spot online fraud

Check their subscriptions

Make sure they aren’t paying for anything by accident, like an app they subscribe to or a fraudulent “tech support” service. Go through their Android or iOS subscriptions first, then ask them if they want to see their recent bank account statement.

Enable automatic backups, especially for photos. If they have a full phone, you can set it to delete photos or videos from the device to free up space. If ever their device is lost, stolen or broken, they will always have all their data and memories ready to go. You can find more storage instructions for Google Drive here and Apple’s iCloud here.

Navigating around a smartphone screen can be more difficult as people lose their dexterity and their eyesight deteriorates. Android and iPhones have great built-in shortcuts that can help seniors: voice assistants. Show them how to activate Siri or Google Assistant, writing down a list of startup commands they need to get used to, such as dictating text.

Let your parents show you what they need

“I always ask my clients, ‘show me what you mean,'” Richie says. Something that may be difficult to explain to you over the phone could be made clearer by asking them to walk you through the process. For example, Richie had a client who was having trouble texting. It turned out that they held a finger on the send arrow too long, accidentally opening the special effects option in Messages.

If your relative is facing any kind of cognitive decline, you can discuss using stronger controls on their devices so they can access or block things remotely. You can also ask them to share usernames and passwords, or store them somewhere easy to access. This should be done with their consent and a full understanding of what you will be accessing.

Write down everything you say to your parents so they have something to reference. If you live too far away to offer constant tech support, find a trusted local computer store that does house calls, or substitute another tech-savvy parent. Richie says be ready for more phone calls and questions, and that’s fine.

“Be fully prepared for them to need you to show them how to do this again and again and again, with love.”

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