What’s a Simple Way to Video Chat with My Elderly Parents?

What’s a Simple Way to Video Chat with My Elderly Parents?

The pandemic has been rough on everyone, especially when it comes to maintaining connection with the people we love. Luckily, technology allows us to maintain these connections in all sorts of useful ways. Chats. Game nights. Video calls. You can even watch movies together — even if you aren’t in the same room.

It can be especially challenging, however, when you’re trying to stay in touch with someone who isn’t as technologically savvy or is otherwise limited because of age or circumstance. Lifehacker reader Lorisa recently wrote to Tech 911 with her dilemma:

Just wondering if you know of a method as how we can setup remote video conference with our mum ahead of time as well as able to stream video (YouTube) to her favorite show.

We are moving our mum into a senior home care as her dementia is getting worse, and out of concern for her safety, we have to other choice but to move her into the facility that managed to keep COVID away by restricting outside visit at this time.

My siblings and I live in same country but not same city as my mum; therefore, we would like to set up a video time with her. In the past at her own home, we would come in and set it all up so that we can monitor her with video and etc. until [a caregiver came] in.

However, with Covid, the senior care already informed that any technology would have to pre-program ahead of time as all the facility would do is plug into the power but they would not do anything else due to the many policies in place. Our mum would not be cognitive enough to know and push on the tablet.

Consider a smart display for far-away family members

I’m glad you provided such extensive detail about this issue, Lorisa, because that really helped me out when pondering a solution for this one. I have one, but let’s quickly go over the basics.

Whatever technological setup you’re going to use to connect to your mum is going to have to be something that’s absurdly easy to operate. Since the senior-care facility workers won’t mess with a device for you, and will only really plug it in, we have to rule out any kind of laptop-based setup. Someone would have to turn those on, after all, and I doubt they’re going to want to keep a laptop running 24/7 in your mum’s room. That, and if something goes wrong with any of these devices, the facility workers would have to help troubleshoot, which it sounds like they wouldn’t be comfortable doing.

You could set up and angle a smartphone to face your mum and just dial in to that, but that’s an awfully small picture for your mum to deal with. A tablet would be better, but I think there’s an even better solution: purchase a smart display for your mum. (I like Google’s Nest Hub Max.)

Smart displays are pretty foolproof. Once you plug one in and set it up, it’s going to be fairly self-sufficient; it’ll update itself as needed, reconnect to the internet if it ever goes down, and the most troubleshooting it’ll probably ever need is a quick unplug and plugging back in. That fits exactly what the facility workers would be able to do, should the need arise.

There is one little quirk you’ll want to address, though. When you go to set up the smart display before dropping it off at your mum’s facility, you’ll need to have some kind of phone number to associate with it — well, with Google Duo, technically. You’ll probably want to make a new, dummy Google account for all of this, append a Google Voice phone number, and then add your primary Google account as a member of the household (so you can control the smart display from afar).

Also, maybe as part of the drop-off process, you can plug the display in near enough to the facility that you’ll be able to set it up on their wifi. That’s the key part of this whole process, but I’m sure they’ll be amenable to letting you do that, at minimum.

You then have two options to launch video chats — assuming your mum isn’t capable of answering them herself. You can make a routine in the Google Home app for your mum’s account that calls your personal phone number (or whatever number you use with Google Duo) when activated. You can also use the built-in “Camera” feature within the Google Home app to pull up a live feed from the smart display (and talk to it).

I like the Google Duo approach myself, as I think it’s a more elegant solution. And I’m sure there’s a way you can set up a group video chat, too, once you’ve gotten the basics down. It might seem a little backwards to use a separate device to initiate a call from your mother’s smart display, but that’s the best solution I have if someone can’t answer a call themselves.

If any of this sounds confusing, there’s a fabulous guide on Reddit that you can use to get this setup working. I couldn’t recommend it more. Also, I’m not necessarily wedded to Google; it’s just the smart display I’m most familiar with. You can “drop in” on an Amazon display, too, and the company’s new “Care Hub” feature makes this even easier.

I think the only major issue you’ll have in this situation is the senior home your mum has moved to. Some of them might balk at allowing a device in that, theoretically, violates HIPAA as a result of its always-listening setup. (That, and you’ll want to lock down said smart display as much as possible to lessen the possibility that your mum, or anyone else, triggers it.)

This isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s the best one I have that requires the least amount of work. As a bonus, since you’ll be controlling the display from afar, you can queue up movies and music for your mum to watch whenever you want — assuming you’ve talked to her first, that is. I don’t recommend surprising her out of the blue.

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