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Tablets are cool for seniors -- but carriers are the real winners

Tablets are hot, hot, hot – but are the usage plans affordable? So 34 percent of Americans own tablets – of these, "ownership skews toward adults ages 35-44 (49%), compared with younger and older adults. Tablet owners have incomes > $75K per year and are typically people who have a college education."  Let’s hope these folks share their tablets with parents and/or grandparents; that the high-energy and youthful AARP training was and will continue to be a worthwhile and available program to help those parents and grandparents. Lots of good can come from tablets – not the least of which is ease of ongoing maintenance compared to PCs, etc. And apps are plentiful and mostly free. This charming Art in the Moment iPad app for seniors with dementia recently caught my eye. Or check out Breezie, seen at AARP’s Life@50, soon to be available in the US. GenConnect has launched with free iPad training video tutorials. But with all of this effort, charm, and enthusiasm, let’s dwell on the elephant in the room – monthly carrier costs.

Television usage is flat, but other devices dominate.  On average, we are spending nearly five and a half hours per day in front of a screen (smartphone, tablet, and computer) and only 4 hours and thirty-one minutes in front of the TV.  Average expenditure on data plans, then? These plans seem amazingly like those 3-year car leases with per-year mileage caps – charging you as much as 20 cents/mile if you go over the cap.  Carrier cost estimates for one tablet start at $30/month if you use nothing -- and rise (via an example slider on usage) to $310/month. In that case, you are either a marketer or a very well-heeled teenager, maxing out on all categories: 20,000 e-mails sent/received with attachments (that’s the marketer), 600 hours surfing the web, 250 hours of streaming music, 50 hours of streaming video, 3000 social media posts with photos, and downloading 200 apps, games, or songs. And tablets are now known to consume three times the amount of this varied data as a smart phone. Guess that is because a larger screen makes content-viewing more tolerable/appealing.

Carriers are first creating and then seizing a gigantic revenue opportunity.  So we want to be out and about with our smartphone, replacing that laptop and lugging our little tablet around in our large purse or briefcase, setting it up on the kitchen counter in the evening, and nodding off in front of a streaming movie late at night.  In effect, we have sold our souls to a mobile monster. Check out that 2012 carrier revenue north of $110 billion each. Note that this is now more revenue than that generated by IBM.  So let’s say we are in the 2013 average user band of 733 megabytes of data each month. We shouldn’t be paying Verizon or anyone else more than $90/month but the odds are that if we are in a house with 2 people (or more) and 2 devices (or more), we could be paying much more than that for data that it turns out we aren’t using.

Help older adults calculate and cut. So naturally AARP and each of the carriers has a data plan calculator for us to use – estimating surfing, streaming, and social media posts. Since unlimited plans went away, we apparently are easily intimidated (and confused) when told that we could be paying $15 extra for each gigabyte of usage over the limit. So many articles now explain and/or confuse about the difference between a megabyte and a gigabyte. But who actually cared before there were smartphone and tablet data plans?  We need to worry – and care throughout our various channels of communication that older adults are not feeding far too much money into this bottomless revenue pit.

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I always urge the seniors that we teach to get a WiFi only iPad and not spend the extra money to purchase a dual WiFi and 3G option. I do explain the difference and mention that they may find themselves without the ability to the get on the Internet...but emphasize that the chances of that being a life or death situation is slim to non.

I would enjoy the opportunity to tell you about our nonprofit, BlueHair Technology Group, and what we are doing to educate older adults about technology.

Jane Ratliff

Thanks for pointing out a huge obstacle for seniors wanting to get online. The price of tablets and apps is coming down, but most people who really need the new health apps don't already have Internet access in their homes, so it's an extra $50-60/month. Some assisted living facilities make it available for a large fee, while only the most expensive include wireless in their monthly rent.

One additional related obstacle is that family caregivers usually have to take a half day off work to meet "the cable guy" to get things hooked up and fuss with routers and connections.

To make technology work for aging in place, we probably need to provide some help getting connected, possibly subsidies for the cost and tech help. While the initial cost may be high, it would save money long term if medications were taken properly and minor problems were identified and treated early - not too mention savings in worry, pain, confusion, and frustration!

Any Senior Center worth its salt should provide wireless for their clients. We initially had to get Comcast for my mother (at $70/mo) to give her access in her apartment.

Her community started slowly with wifi in nursing and then in public areas. They migrated to wifi in all the apartment areas at a cost of $25/mo. Volunteers help with training as she uses an iPad.

She is fine with Skype, basic internet and playing bridge. Email drives her nuts as the interface isn't very user friendly and the concept of remembering passwords is a mess for her. She may be 92 but is sharp but certain things just don't register.


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