Is There an Easy Way to Video Chat With My Elderly Parents?

The pandemic has hit everyone, especially when it comes to keeping in touch with the people we love. Fortunately, technology allows us to maintain these connections in all useful ways. Chats. Game nights. Video calls. You can even watch movies together – even if you’re not in the same room.

However, this can be especially difficult when you are trying to keep in touch with someone who is not as technologically savvy or otherwise constrained by age or circumstances. Lifehacker reader Lorisa recently wrote Tech 911 with her dilemma:

Just wondering if you know how we can set up a remote video conferencing with our mom in advance and also stream (YouTube) videos to her favorite show.

We are transferring our mom to a nursing home as her dementia worsens and concerns about her safety are forced to make other choices other than transferring her to a facility that has prevented the spread of COVID by currently limiting outdoor visits. …

My brothers and sisters and I live in the same country, but not in the same city as my mother; so we would like to organize a video time with her. We used to go in her own house and set things up so that we could watch her through video, etc., until [the guardian] came.

However, in the case of Covid, senior medical personnel have already informed that any technology will require pre-programming as all the facility will do is plug into a power source, but they will not do anything else due to the many policies in place. Our mom won’t be smart enough to know and tap on a tablet.

Consider a smart display for remote family members

I’m glad you provided such details on this issue, Lorisa, because it really helped me when thinking about a solution to this issue. I have one, but let’s quickly go over the basics.

Whatever technological setup you are going to use to connect to your mom, it should be absurdly easy to use. Since the caregiver will not contact the device for you, but only plug it into the mains, we must eliminate any laptop-based installation. In the end, someone will have to turn them on, and I doubt they would want a laptop running 24/7 in your mom’s room. That is, and if something goes wrong with any of these devices, the workers in the enterprise will have to help with troubleshooting, which they seem to be inconvenient to do.

You can set your smartphone up to face your mom and just dial the number, but this is an awful little picture for your mom. A tablet would be better, but I think there is an even better solution: buy a smart display for your mom. (I love Google’s Nest Hub Max .)

Smart displays are pretty reliable. After you plug it in and configure it, it will be self-sufficient enough; it will update itself as needed, reconnect to the internet if it ever crashes, and the biggest troubleshooting part that is likely to ever need is to quickly disconnect and reconnect. This is exactly what the site workers could do if necessary.

However, there is one small quirk that you should look out for. When you’re going to set up a smart display before leaving it at your mom’s house, you’ll need a phone number of some sort to contact it – well, technically a Google Duo. You probably want to create a new dummy Google account for all of this, add your Google Voice phone number, and then add your primary Google account as a family member (so you can control your smart display from afar).

Also, perhaps as part of the disembarkation process, you can connect the display close enough to the facility that you can mount it on their Wi-Fi. This is a key part of the whole process, but I’m sure they will at least allow you to do this.

Then you have two options for starting video chats if your mom can’t answer them herself. You can configure your mom’s account in the Google Home app to call your personal phone number (or whatever number you use with Google Duo) upon activation. You can also use the built-in Camera feature in the Google Home app to get (and talk to) live from your smart display.

I like Google Duo’s approach as I find it a more elegant solution. And I’m sure there is a way to set up a group video chat once you get the basics down. Using a separate device to call from your mother’s smart display may seem a little backward, but it’s the best solution I have if someone can’t answer the call themselves.

If any of this seems confusing, there is a great guide on Reddit that you can use to get this setup to work. I couldn’t recommend this more. Also, I’m not necessarily married to Google; it’s just the smart display I’m most familiar with. You can also take a peek at Amazon’s display, and the company’s new Care Hub feature makes it even easier.

I think the only major problem you will face in this situation is the nursing home your mom moved to. Some of them might prevent the device from theoretically violating HIPAA due to its constant listening setup. (That, and you’ll want to block the said smart display as much as possible to reduce the likelihood of your mom or anyone else calling it.)

This is not a perfect solution, but the best I have requires a minimum of effort. As a bonus, since you’ll be controlling the display from afar, you can queue up movies and music for your mom to watch whenever she wants, if you talk to her first. I do not recommend surprising her unexpectedly.


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