Old man on phone

At times, cell phones can seem like a bigger headache than they are actually worth. From wrong numbers, telemarketers, to outright scams, there is definitely a cost to having a cell phone beyond the actual price. With both cell phones and cell phone plans costs on the rise, you may wonder if you would be better off without one. This is particularly true for seniors, because seniors tend to use technology less than the generations before them.

If you are a senior or have a loved one who is getting older, I’d like to share with you some things to consider before deciding whether to get a new cell phone or keep a current one. We all seem to know a senior who has cell phone “issues” that lead to low or no cell phone use. Overcoming these issues can go a long way toward making it a useful tool (I saw the benefits myself after volunteering at a temporary shelter after a fire at a senior living facility — thus leading to the theme of this article).

Here are the biggest hurdles to overcome:

Cost. Many carriers offer plans specifically designed for seniors. There are also carriers that offer plans specifically designed for low-volume users. As for the cell phone itself, manufacturers have finally wised-up and are making phones that are closer to the size of the landline receiver. A phone is more likely to be used if you can actually read it and hear it. Virtually all models are now hearing aid compatible but ratings should be verified online before purchase.

Security concerns. The advice for computers applies here as well. Don’t give out private information like social security numbers and passwords over the phone (text or voice). Saving important numbers can make it easier to screen calls. If you seem to be getting an excessive number of unwanted calls, consider registering for the Do Not Call Registry (www.donotcall.gov) and blocking numbers that call you repeatedly.

Complexity. The number of features on a cell phone can seem overwhelming, especially if you did not grow up using hi-tech. Keep the most used features together on the same phone screen for faster access   (I like the popular idea of having a “kid” help with technology because it is a win-win; you get what you want and they get an ego boost as well). Voice response capabilities like Siri and Google have improved greatly in the past few years, so now you can simply ask your phone to do most desired tasks.

What are the most important uses and/or benefits? And do they outweigh the cost? Because seniors are more likely to be use their cell phones like a traditional phone (i.e., mainly to talk), some of these additional benefits may not be obvious to them:

Practical. Popular uses among seniors include practical applications like making emergency phone calls, using GPS to help navigate when driving or walking, checking the weather, monitoring health through apps and keeping up with important information (Having important information available to them was important after I worked at that temporary shelter after a senior living facility fire last year). AARP suggests some additional uses including ride-booking apps (e.g., Lyft and Uber), telemedicine (doctor’s appointments done by video), and shopping online (many grocery stores now offer this option).

Fun. There are also many social functions like watching videos, video chatting with grandchildren and texting with friends. The entertainment benefits of cell phones should not be overlooked. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11 million, or 28% of people aged 65 and older, lived alone at the time of the 2010 count. Isolation and loneliness are associated the high risks of mortality and both negative physical and mental health. Cell phone “brain games” also offer cognitive stimulation that can help improve memory and slow the brain’s aging process.


Finally, when making the decision, recognize that not all seniors are alike. According to the Pew Research Center, of seniors ages 65 and above, nearly 40% used regular phones vs. smart phones. Similarly, AARP found that seniors over 70 use their cell phones less than other seniors. Talk it over with your loved ones and determine what fit may be best for them — and you. And — recruit a grandchild or child to help learn the tools and potential benefits that come with it.


 Nolan Taylor is a clinical assistant professor of information systems, Indiana University Kelley School of Business at IUPUI.

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