The iPad for the Elderly

Even my grandmother has an iPad.

Before my grandfather died, my grandparents each had their own Mac, their screens facing each other as they sat at their respective second-floor desks. My grandfather’s computer was surrounded by volumes of his chemistry books and patents of his own design, while my grandmother’s was framed by a window looking out onto Muddy Cove. These were Apple people, and though I was a PC devotee in my earlier years, I enjoyed disrupting the tyranny of solitaire on their machines to play Ingemar’s Skiing Game during summer visits.

Every few years, they would upgrade to better and better Macs. My grandmother, a former teacher, mastered all manner of patience games, many bearing exotic names like Spider and Klondike. In addition to playing solitaire, she could send and receive email, check the news, monitor the weather, and waste time on Facebook. She was, if not a power user, perfectly competent.

About three years ago, my grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This was a blessing, since she gained access to medications that vastly improved her mental and physical function, but it was also a harbinger of difficult times to come. Related and unrelated medical issues led to losses in mobility and memory, to falls, and ultimately to a nursing and rehabilitation facility. Like many families these days, ours saw fit to equip her with a piece of technology lauded for its simplicity and ease of use: the iPad.

When I found my grandmother’s iPad a few days ago, it was buried at the bottom of a drawer, its battery dead. I took it home and recharged it, then spent a few hours stripping it of crapware, burying all of the apps she wouldn’t use in a couple of folders, moving the remaining apps to the home screen, increasing the type size where possible, and turning off every feature that I thought might potentially confuse her. I set a picture of her great-granddaughter as the lock screen background, then I gave it to her and showed her how to open and use the remaining apps: Mail, Photos, Facetime, Weather Channel, USA Today, Contacts, Safari and Solitaire.

It quickly became clear that my simplification of this simple device was still completely inadequate. It was also obvious that the Accessibility options built into the iPad are equally useless. Here’s a brief overview of the core Accessibility options:


According to Apple’s documentation, “…just touch the screen to hear an item’s description, then gesture with a double-tap, drag, or flick to control iPad.” When enabled, a rapid robotic voice says, “VoiceOver on. Settings Alert. Important. VoiceOver changes the gestures used to control iPad. Are you sure you want to continue? Press the home button to cancel.”


This requires the user to double-tap with three fingers, then drag three fingers to move around the screen. There are no scroll bars to indicate that only a portion of the screen is visible when zoomed in, and using one finger acts as a swipe, making it easy to get to a screen with nothing on it except a portion of the keyboard (on the Spotlight search page).

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This applies only to Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Messages and Notes, which is nice if the user can actually get into those apps in the first place.

The iPad’s simplicity can be traced directly to the fact that there are only three primary movements involved in operating the device: tapping, swiping, and pressing the home button. Double-tapping, multiple finger swiping, flicking and other motions may not represent major barriers for use among average users, but for those with reduced vision, hearing, memory and motor skills (for whom these accessibility options are designed), they are deal breakers.

If Apple actually wants to make the iPad accessible for an aging generation, these are the accessibility options that would actually make a difference:

1. An option to completely turn off Spotlight search.
Many, many times, I see my grandmother attempting to press down on an icon, only to make more of a swiping gesture. That sends her to the Spotlight screen with its limited utility, small keyboard, tiny search box and lots of blank space. It’s a cumbersome interface and I think lots of users would love to disable this “feature,” regardless of any disability.

2. An option to double the size of icons.
Keep the grid, and have a total of 6 icons per page: four in the main screen section and two in the dock. This is all many people need, and for those who need more, swiping through two or three pages of easily visible (and legible) icons is far easier than deciphering and tapping tiny icons.

3. Apply text magnification to all apps.
This kind of accessibility should be a requirement of apps in the Store, and something that is possible within Safari on the iPad. Safari 5.1 has a “Zoom Text Only” feature that allows the user to select a minimum text size. The iPad should have this, too.

For years, losing the ability to drive a car represented a huge blow to the independence and connectivity of seniors. In this digital age, losing access to email, to online banking, and to news is equally damaging. Of all the computers and tablets available, the iPad is best placed to create the opportunity for seniors to stay connected with their families, friends, and the rest of the world. But until Apple effectively addresses these accessibility issues in their iPad, I’ll be bringing my grandmother a deck of cards instead.