Social distancing is crucial to reducing COVID-19's infection curve and keeping us safe, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sure, we have things like social media, video chats, and a bevy of entertainment options available to us at any time, but it’s harder for people who lack the technological skills to figure all this stuff out.
This is especially true for the elderly, who already suffer from increased loneliness and can tend to struggle with the fast-paced changes in technology that most of us are using to stay in contact with one another. Luckily, with the right apps and a properly set up device, we can help people of all experience levels stay in contact with friends and family.
This guide focuses on popular apps that include text, voice, and video chat features, and feature easy-to-use interfaces that don’t require you to sign up for extra accounts. So while Skype, Zoom, Discord, Telegram, and other similar apps might be obvious picks if using a PC or smartphone is second nature to you, they’ll probably be too difficult to deal with for people who are a bit tech-adverse.
Before we get to the app suggestions, let’s talk about making a smartphone (or any gadget) easier to use in general.
Most devices you own include numerous accessibility options and customisation settings that can make them much easier to use. These accessibility options can do everything from making buttons and text bigger; adding helpful shortcuts; simplifying app interfaces; and even hiding extraneous features, notifications, and apps. These settings will often be reflected in the apps you install as well, though some may have app-specific accessibility settings you’ll need to configure. Either way, these options shouldn’t be ignored, as they will make using—and explaining—a new device or application much easier.
We have guides on the numerous options available on Android and iOS/iPadOS to help you get started. Gadget Hacks also has an excellent guide for setting up a smartphone for elderly or technophobic users. Their guide focuses on Android phones, but the general tips are (mostly) relevant to Android tablets, as well as iPhones and iPads.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the app suggestions.
FaceTime (iOS, iPadOS, macOS)
FaceTime is the standard video chat app included on your iPhone, iPad, and Mac, so it’s going to be the easiest option for people who already have an Apple device and will only be contacting other Apple users.
You won’t have to install any extra apps, and any iOS accessibility options you’ve enabled will be applied to FaceTime as well. The interface is generally easy to use and learn, especially if the person is already comfortable with other Apple apps like iMessage.
However, if you need an option for contacting people on other platforms like Android or Windows, you’ll want to use one of the cross-platform solutions below.
Facebook Messenger Lite (Android, iOS/iPadOS)
Facebook Messenger Lite is a smaller and sleeker version of Facebook Messenger that cuts out several extra features to focus on text messages and video/voice calls. You can still send pictures and videos in Messenger Lite, but features like dark mode and threaded message replies aren’t available. It also lacks some of the extra animations (like profile images sliding to the bottom of chat to denote a user has seen a message) so conversations are much simpler to load and read. Facebook Messenger Lite even ditches the floating chat bubble notifications found on the Messenger mobile apps that may annoy or confuse some users.
Messenger Lite is cross-platform, and its interface is largely identical regardless of which device you use it on, which should help keep the experience consistent for those who own different devices. There’s no PC version of the app, but the main Messenger web client is available if needed.
Just like the core Messenger mobile app, you can use Messenger Lite without a Facebook account, and it’s easy to call or text contacts from your device. The app is free, as are all of its features—just make sure video calls happen over wifi to reduce data usage and avoid potential overage charges.
WhatsApp (Android, iOS/iPadOS, Windows, Mac)
WhatsApp is another free, Facebook-owned option, but it differs from Facebook messenger in some key ways.
Most notably, WhatsApp’s out-of-the-box privacy settings are better than Facebook Messenger’s. All WhatsApp messages and call data are protected with end-to-end encryption—which basically means they can only be read or accessed by the users in the conversation. If you’re at all concerned about data privacy, WhatsApp is probably the simplest option. Sure, there are other messaging apps with even stricter privacy controls, but they’re not as intuitive nor as popular as WhatsApp.
WhatsApp’s interface is also simple to use, and some may find it even easier than Facebook Messenger Lite’s already stripped-down interface. Like Messenger, WhatsApp can be used to contact fellow Whatsapp users, as well as contacts saved to the device, and everything you do on the service is completley free—messages, voice calls, and video chats.
WhatsApp has dedicated Windows and Mac apps in addition to its Android and iOS versions, plus a web client, all of which can be synced to the same profile.
This last pick is a bit different from the previous three, but still worth noting. Oscar Senior isn’t just a video chat or messaging app; it’s an entire digital care package.
Oscar Senior is basically a mini, secondary operating system that includes numerous features to keep elderly users in contact with family, friends, and caregivers. It’s designed to be easily accessible for those with minimal tech experience. Oscar Senior can be used to call, text, and voice chat, as well as track important care data. The interface uses big, easy-to-find buttons and widgets with large text, and starting up a video call takes just a couple button presses.
The service has several payment tier options, and requires quite a bit of setup to get started, but the company is currently offering a free two-month trial due to COVID-19. It’s available on iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows.
A smart speaker isn’t an app, but it’s a simple way to stay in touch
Another solid option is to ditch apps and phones entirely. Set up your tech-troubled loved ones with a smart speaker, and they’ll be able to dial you up with a simple spoken request. (You can even write down the trigger words and catchphrases for them, to help them get acclimated with their devices).
You’ll probably want whomever it is you’re trying to reach to have a smart speaker that uses the same platform as you; if you’re an iOS user, that’s a HomePod. If you’re already invested in Amazon’s ecosystem, your friend or loved one should pick up an Echo device. If you’re on Android, or have Google smart home devices of your own, they’ll probably want a Google Home speaker of some sort.
These speakers all be used to place regular phone calls, so long as their owner also has a device with the right requirements—typically either running the company’s operating system or using the right app on their compatible smartphone. You’ll probably need to do this setup yourself for your friend or relative, as it can be a bit complicated for those who don’t know a lot about technology, but the payoff is worth it. Smart speakers are a great and simple solution for staying in touch.