(Posted: 24th March 2021) Video calling has opened up a new way to communicate and keep in touch with your family and friends, especially during the pandemic. New applications like Zoom have increased exponentially in popularity for video conferencing. Existing players in the consumer market such as Apple (FaceTime), Google (Duo, Meet) and Microsoft (Skype, Teams) have upped their games. So how do you include your elderly family and friends on your video calls? In this post we’ll attempt to help you answer the question: What is the best video phone for the elderly and housebound?
The answer will probably depend on what experience and ability the user has with technology. Can they use a smart phone, tablet or computer? If so, they will be able to use one of many popular video calling apps running on smart phones, tablets, Macs and PCs.
If they are not used to technology, what are the options? There are smart devices from Amazon, Google and Facebook to consider and there are a number of devices which have come on the market which specifically cater for the elderly and housebound.
Mandatory Requirements for a Video Phone for the Elderly or Housebound
From my own experience of exploring the market for a simple video phone for my own mother, who had dementia and mobility issues, here are the main criteria I used when I was searching for a video phone for the elderly or housebound.
- The device must automatically answer video calls without any user input
- The device must only answer video calls from nominated contacts
- The device must always be available and on display
- The device mustn’t require charging before use
- The device mustn’t interfere with other daily activities outside of video calls
- The device mustn’t be tied to a smart phone
Nice to have features
For my own mother I particularly wanted to display the video calls on a television screen, but I consider this to be a nice to have features. Here are my list of other nice to have features:
- Display the video call on a large screen, e.g. a television
- The ability to participate in group video calls
- The ability to make outbound calls using a remote control, touchscreen or voice commands
- Smart camera that automatically pans and zooms to follow the user and anyone else in the room
What Devices Meet the Mandatory Requirements?
Smart Phones and Tablets
It is theoretically possible to have automatically answered video calls on a smart phone or a tablet. However, there doesn’t appear to be one single app on mobile devices that both automatically answers video calls and limits those calls to known contacts.
In addition no smart phones or tablets meet the criteria of being permanently on display and not requiring to be charged before use. Portable devices, by their very nature, are easily put in drawers and forgotten about. Therefore, let’s look at the alternatives, Smart Home Devices and Purpose Built Video Calling Devices for Elderly and Housebound.
Smart Home Devices
Since the advent of digital virtual assistants, such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple Siri, a number of smart home devices with video screens have been launched onto the market. These include devices from Amazon, Facebook and Google:
- Amazon Echo Show 10”
- Facebook Portal+
- Facebook Portal TV
- Google Nest Hub Max
Unfortunately, none of them, apart from the Amazon Echo Show, provide automatically answered video calls. They are all, undoubtedly, very interesting communication tools for users who are not fazed by technology. However, some elderly users may be intimidated by the user interfaces and the voice control which most of them rely on for ease of use.
As said above, the Echo Show is the only device to provide completely automated video calls. There are some gotchas, though. Setting up an Echo Show requires a dedicated smart phone for installation and managing which users who can “Drop In” (Amazon’s name for auto answered video calls). This means that you will probably need to buy a smart phone specifically for this purpose (unless you have a spare one lying around) and which will at least double the initial price you will pay.
If you can get past the Echo Show’s need for a dedicated smart phone, “Dropping In” can be done from other Echo Show devices and through the Alexa app on iOS and Android.
The Amazon Echo Show 10 meets all the mandatory requirements, other than not requiring a smart phone, as well as having most of the nice to have features. The main downsides are Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, which is always listening to the sound in the user’s room and will chip in occasionally which can be a bit spooky for the user. Also you can only call people with an Amazon Echo Show or who have the Alexa app on their phone or tablet. There is no support for PC or Mac users to join in video calls.
Would my mother have been able to operate any of these devices? I don’t think so.
Purpose Built Devices for the Elderly
Now we have established that tablets, computers and smart home devices aren’t really suitable for users who have not used technology, other than a television remote. So what’s the alternative? This is where devices built specifically for the elderly come in.
The reason we developed CallGenie was to address a need in the market for a simple video calling device that required no input from the user and which displayed video calls on the user’s television – see the history here.
We chose Skype, as the video calling application at the heart of CallGenie, because it automatically answers calls, and can also limits those calls to known contacts. Skype is platform independent and runs on almost all smart phones, tablets and computers (PC, Mac and Linux). It is also relatively easily to set up group calls and share screens (particularly useful for viewing photographs).
Using the television as the display for video calls addresses the requirement for the device being always on display.
CallGenie can be permanently connected to the television and left powered on. Therefore, it is available to receive video calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you do want to turn it off at the wall, it will automatically start up when the power is restored.
CallGenie takes control of the user’s television during a video call and returns it to its original state after the call, thus saving confusion for the user.