Calling grandma: How a smartphone can help those with memory loss stay on track

Posted at 8:38 AM, Nov 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-25 12:20:13-05

WACO, Texas — Can a simple cell phone help people in the early stages of dementia?

A Baylor University study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, shows it can but it's all in how you use it.

"Let me ask you a question, what does it mean to put your phone into airplane mode," asked the instructor in a classroom full of senior citizens.

These seniors, a generation to whom dial-up literally means to make a phone call, have begun learning the secrets of smartphones.

"I have cataracts so I can't see my texts. The main thing for me was when she showed us how to change the size of the text," said Joan Reiner.

Researchers at Baylor University have found that cell phones can provide those suffering from memory loss, a way to stay on track.

Dr. Michael Scullin led the study which followed others in the past, offering mechanical or electronic memory aids to seniors.

Scullin noticed that the devices used in those earlier studies were things that stood out because relatively few people had pagers, palm pilots or voice recorders at the time.

Now you can find all those things on most smartphones and everybody has one.

First, Scullin and his team had to help their test subjects overcome their smartphone fears.

"This is how you do that, you know how your grandkids are always talking about texting well it's actually really simple. So you just hit this button and you don't even have to type, you can just speak into it and it will turn your words magically into text, and you can send it," said Scullin. "There are ways to voice record what you have to remember to do in the future and you can check on it later there are ways of offloading it onto these reminder apps that'll tell you. When you need to remember to take your medications, for example, and that was really the focus of our study is."

The study showed the participants who stayed true to their instructions, had far fewer problems.

"One of our aims was to provide experiments or assign tasks so have like an objective measure of. So, for some metrics, we saw that people were able to remember about 50% of the time which might sound like Oh, what is it, how do I make sense of that. Most studies in this area in this population performance is that, like 20%." said Scullin.

You'll want to take measures to protect your senior from telephone scams, like the old tech support ruse, or any number of sweepstakes scams.

Calls may be limited, both sent and received, to trusted friends and family members.

The idea is to get them more interested in the apps that help and less in the ones that highlight vulnerabilities.

"We were also pleasantly surprised to see that one individual wanted to use these memory aids so they could learn to use it and then it seemed to have a benefit for them and for their loved ones," Scullen said.

He says it's not a cure but a way for people to compensate for memory loss, or maybe slow it down some.

Because new cell phone users have a lot to remember.

"Our instructor was very patient with us and I thought she was very clear on everything," said student Dorie Lopez.

So a good gift for an aging family member? A smartphone and maybe a smartphone class like this.