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Parental Tech Support: Everything You Need to Solve on a Senior’s Phone

Adult kids doing family tech support know the drill. Calling your parents about a problem with their smartphone, maybe spam messages or something wrong with Facebook. You try to talk them into fixing it remotely with mixed results and mutual frustration.

The next time you see your parents in person (and you really should come more often), do everyone a favor. Take 30 minutes to borrow their phone and clean the house. A little maintenance now can prevent future problems with security, scams, confusion or misinformation. You’re going to clear out old clutter, fix any minor issues, and tweak it so that everything is a little easier for them to see and understand.

This is advice for adult children whose parents or other elderly relatives use a smartphone, but everyone can perform these maintenance tasks on their own devices.

“The first thing I do is check for what I call check engine lights,” said Abbie Richie, the founder and CEO of tech support company Senior Savvy. “I look for red notification badges, especially in the Settings app.”

Apple and Google regularly release minor updates and major annual updates for their smartphone, iOS, and Android operating systems. Don’t avoid them, even if you’re concerned about adding confusing new features. They often contain important security patches and bug fixes. If you’re doing a major operating system update, take the time to walk them through the new look and the new options.

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

Delete and reorganize apps

Go page by page and ask your parents what they use and what they don’t – you’d be surprised how many of us have apps installed that we don’t remember. Remove anything that seems suspicious, scam, or confusing.

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

Ask if there’s anything they want to do on their phone but can’t, such as internet banking. Install new apps when they need them, but keep it simple and guide them through setting up anything that requires you to sign in. Write down any new passwords!

Make the screen more visible

Our eyesight deteriorates as we age and even the largest phone can be difficult to read. Smartphones are packed with accessibility settings that you can dive into, but for starters, let’s make everything a little bigger and brighter.

In Settings, increase the text size and make it bold. You can enable a setting like iOS’s Display Zoom, which makes everything a little bigger across the board. Finally, turn the brightness all the way up and show them how to control it themselves. Experiment with switching between light and dark modes and see if they are easier to see.

Richie also suggests giving your parents more time before their phones are locked. Instead of 30 seconds or one minute, the auto-lock kicks in between 3 and 5 minutes.

Enable emergency and health settings

Add any medical conditions and allergies to the phone’s built-in emergency settings. On an iPhone, go to Medical ID in the Health Settings. On an Android device, you can go to the Safety & Emergency settings. Add emergency contacts, including people who live nearby and immediate family members. Make sure that this information can be viewed in an emergency, even if the phone is locked.

Many smartphones have built-in health monitoring options. For example, on the iPhone, you can enable the notification for stable walking, which can be useful 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 disinformation

If you’re worried about your parents falling for misinformation or radicalizing online, you can make some small changes to make it better. Pick a reputable news channel or app and move it to a prominent place on their home screen. Apple News and Google News both do a good job of including a wide variety 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. Walk through their social media accounts with them, if they let you. Ask if you can unfollow pages or influencers who spread disinformation or propaganda.

How to avoid falling for and spreading misinformation?

Minimize Scam Attempts

Seniors are a popular target for scammers. You can adjust a few settings to reduce attempts. We’ll walk you all through this, but start by sending unknown calls straight to voicemail (Settings → Phone → Mute Unknown Callers on an iPhone), filtering texts from unknown senders, and enabling any spam filters or detection offered by their phone or cell carrier.

Go through their friends lists on Facebook and Instagram and delete all fake-seeming accounts, including people they don’t know and accounts impersonating other people. You can find more settings that you can change on their smartphone and messaging apps here.

Yes, it’s a scam: simple tips to detect online fraud

Check their subscriptions

Make sure they don’t accidentally pay for something like an app they’ve subscribed to or a “tech support” scammer. Check out their Android or iOS plans first, then ask them 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 their device is ever lost, stolen, or broken, they still have all their data and memories close at hand. More storage instructions for Google Drive can be found here and Apple’s iCloud here.

Navigating 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, and write down a list of startup commands they need to get used to, such as dictating a text.

Let your parents show you what they need

“I always ask my clients, ‘show me what you mean,’” Richie says. Something that might be difficult to explain to you over the phone can be made clearer by having them walk you through the process. For example, Richie had a customer who was having trouble sending text messages. It turned out that they held a finger on the send arrow for too long, accidentally bringing up the special effects option in Messages.

If your parent is dealing with any kind of cognitive decline, you can discuss how to use stronger controls on their devices so that you can open or block things remotely. You can also ask them to share credentials and passwords, or store them in an easily accessible place. This should be done with their permission and full understanding of what you are accessing.

Write down everything you tell your parents so they have something to refer to. If you live too far away to provide constant technical support, find a trusted local computer store that will make house calls or replace another tech-savvy family member. Richie says she’s ready for more calls and questions, and that’s okay.

“Be fully prepared that they may need you to show them how to do this over and over, with love.”

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