Larger Icons and Keyboards for a Phone Mom Would Love: Android Can Make the Elderly Tech Savvy

2013-06-28 07.13.08The elderly often feel intimidated by new technology. Smartphones in particular did not catch on among the retired compared to the Facebook generation. And for good reason: Tiny screens and keyboards seem designed for addicting scores of tweens and young adults to social media apps. But did you know a wealth of smartphone software exist for the elderly and aging?

I recently bought my retired mother a smartphone, something she desperately needed to manage emails and text messages. However, her eyesight isn’t particularly sharp anymore, so using a 4″ (10cm) touchscreen presents issues. Fortunately, customizable software for Android can help her with all of these issues, using a few apps and configuration tweaks.

Here are some tips on how to set up a smartphone for your mother, father or grandparent.

Configuring an Android Phone Mom or Dad Needs

Increase the size of text: The Android operating system includes a number of accessibility features for those with hearing or visual disabilities. In particular, the most useful feature for those with failing eye-sight is “Large text” from within Accessibility. It increases font size. To turn large text on:

Go to Settings -> Accessibility -> check the box for “Large text” as shown below.


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Turn Screen Brightness Up: While turning screen brightness up may cause much additional battery drain, it will also make it easier to use during daylight. I recommend switching on automatic brightness.

However, if that’s not enough, turning full brightness on is a snap. To alter your phone’s screen brightness settings, go to Settings -> Display -> “Brightness”.


Your settings won’t look exactly like mine, but even so, check the box for “Automatic brightness”. If you prefer turning brightness up, uncheck the box and move the slider all the way to the right. Then hit “OK”.

An alternative to max screen brightness is the app Lux, which can dynamically adjust your screen’s backlight at levels brighter than permitted by automatic management and with better battery efficiency than max brightness. It’s on our Best Android Apps list.

Keyboards and Launchers For a Phone: Elderly Eyesight Savers

The two most useful things you can do to improve the visibility of apps and simplify Android’s user interface is by installing a custom launcher and a larger keyboard. My two favorite larger launchers are Launcher 7 and Big Launcher. Both have their vices and shortcomings, but overall can provide a tremendous boon to the elderly. I ended up installing Big Launcher for my parent because of its simplified interface and lack of ads. For those who prefer slick visuals, though, Launcher 7 can’t be beat. And for those of you lucky enough to own a Galaxy S4, the phone comes with its own large launcher, called Easy Mode.

As far as keyboards go, a large number of enhanced versions exist in the Play Store. Out of these, I prefer Big Buttons Keyboard for its simplicity.

Launcher 7: Two of the best features about Windows Mobile are the large icons and simplified interface. Launcher 7 effectively emulates this interface for Android. It has the advantage of being both customizable and easily configurable. On the downside, the free version includes an ad in the application drawer. Matt wrote extensively about Launcher 7’s capabilities and how-to configure it for use.


Big Launcher: Big Launcher’s design provides easy access to your phone’s core functions – Dialing, apps, email, camera and photo gallery. It can even dial emergency services with the press of two buttons.


It’s even possible to add additional applications and screens. Simply hit the “Menu” button from the launch page and select “Preferences”. Then choose “Customize buttons and screens”.


On the downside, Big Launcher’s paid version costs $10, but for most users the free version is more than enough.

Big Buttons Keyboard Standard: Big Buttons Keyboard provides exactly what the name implies – an oversized touchscreen keyboard. It’s best used in landscape mode, although portrait mode works fine, with only a small amount of awkwardness.


Setup is fairly easy. After installing Big Buttons Keyboard, fire the app up. You’ll be prompted to select it as one of your active input methods and as your current keyboard. This takes two steps:

  • First, start the application up and select Big Buttons Keyboard from “Language and input”. Then hit the back button.
  • Second, select “Select input method” and check the box for “Big Buttons Keyboard”. After that, all text input boxes will pop the larger keyboard up.


Other Android Applications on a Phone for the Elderly

  • MedWatcher: This is a semi-official app partially sponsored by the FDA which helps report adverse drug reactions. It requires creating an account, but after doing so you’ll have access to the latest reports in adverse drug reactions.
  • Diabetes: There’s also an app that can analyze diabetes data, such as the glucose level and other metrics.
  • Heart and blood pressure monitors
  • Prime Alert: Prime Alert provides users with a one-click emergency activation, similar to Life Alert. It can configure for a variety of behaviors such as sending emails with GPS coordinates, if the alert button is pressed or sending SMS to several individuals.
  • MediSafe Virtual Pillbox: MediSafe is an easy-to-use pill reminder. It includes reminders and other notifications. The configuration process is relatively minimal.

Credit Card and Security Concerns

For those of you concerned about the financial security of the Android operating system, and unauthorized purchases made in the Play Store, I suggest the following:

  • Lock the phone with a password or use a child-proofing app.
  • Don’t enter your credit card information in the Play Store. This option will prevent you from purchasing apps.
  • Install security software that will allow you to track the device.

Dumbphone or Smartphone?

For those of you who aren’t sold on getting a smartphone, there exist a variety of “normal” phones designed specifically for the elderly. Matt did a great write-up on five of the best. However, I would add that since his article published another great regular phone for the elderly popped up called the Just5 J510. It features larger buttons, amplified volume and a longer lasting battery. It also comes unlocked, so you can add it to any carrier without a contract.


For those of you seeking other devices, and not just phones, check out the Answer section’s discussion on the subject.


Configuring an Android smartphone for the elderly is simple. Installing larger keyboards, specialized apps and launcher interfaces will make it easier for your elderly mother, father or grandparent to send email, make calls, monitor their prescription medications and operate a smartphone. However, for those of you looking to learn how-to use email, before they jump into the smartphone market, read Jessica’s take on the wonderful app Eldy.

Does anyone have any favorite apps for the elderly? Please share in the comments.

Image Credits: Just5 J510 via its manufacturer’s website; Grandma on Her Phone via

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