Why the iPad Appeals to Older Users

They stick to basics, however, as more powerful tools are seen as too advanced for older seniors.

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Hannelore Jend left her German home in Darmstadt in 1949 and resettled in the Denver area with her husband, who was in the military. Now 88, she recently visited her old hometown without ever leaving her current home at the Balfour Retirement Community in Louisville, Colo. As part of a new program that teaches residents there how to use Apple iPads, Jend was able to see her home using Google Earth, a popular iPad app.

"I like to wander around," she says. "I like to travel, so this really was to me amazing." She says it has been so long since she visited Darmstadt that seeing her old neighborhood again was "just mind boggling."

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Sandy Christensen is executive director of the community, which offers assisted living and skilled nursing services to its residences. Along with independent living and dementia care, it's one of four facilities that comprise the Balfour Senior Living complex.

Christensen says residents are still learning about iPads, but seeing places throughout the world has become a top use. Residents have also expanded their use of news websites and games, and have accessed YouTube to download popular videos as well as how-to demonstrations for crafts and cooking recipes. There is also a community book club that is beginning to experiment with iPads for audio books as well as the device's ability to let users increase the type sizes of eBooks to enhance legibility.

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Beyond enjoying the devices amongst themselves, some residents are also using iPads to more closely connect with family members. Virginia Croce, 87, brought her grandson, who is in his mid-20s, to the community and he participated with her in an iPad lesson. When a daughter went on vacation to Antigua with her husband, Croce was able to remotely follow them on their travels, seeing the places they visited.

Balfour will be buying more iPads, Christensen says, including the new iPad2, which includes front- and rear-facing cameras. The newer model makes live video communications very easy, although Balfour residents have not begun to use the iPad as a communications tool.

More broadly, early research on how seniors use the iPad has found that older consumers are drawn to the device's ease-of-use benefits, but not many of the more advanced apps and other trendy features that are often emphasized in iPad reviews.

For example, the iPad comes standard with an array of tools for people who are hearing-impaired and vision-impaired. These include text-to-speech and speech-to-text features that could be extremely useful to seniors with failing hearing or vision. However, these uses are currently beyond the capability, and perhaps even the interest, of older users.

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Andrew Carle is an assistant professor at George Mason University and director of its program in assisted living for seniors. In his early work with seniors using iPads, Carle reports that "participants found the iPad very, very easy to use and understand. All [older users] were able to use the basic functions within a minute or two of instruction." The absence of a mouse and keyboard generally helped seniors who had earlier wrestled with PCs and dropped them as too complicated.

Carle was struck, however, by things that older users did not value in the iPad. "There was limited interest in the fact that the iPad was portable," he said, with most users saying they didn't travel much and thus did not value being able to carry an iPad around with them.

"Surprisingly," he added, "no participants expressed much interest in using the iPad for health or wellness applications," Carle found. Such applications are being heavily promoted among doctors and in the development of electronic health records. But he found that seniors were concerned about the confidentiality of their medical information and worried that it would be very relatively easy for someone to walk away with an iPad containing their medical records.

Twitter: @PhilMoeller