Challenges of teaching the elderly to use a smartphone

Nurse teaching an elderly patient how to use a smartphone

On many occasions in my role as a Diversional Therapist in a rest home/hospital setting, I have been asked to set up a new phone or to show a patient how to find something on their phone.

The covid lockdowns certainly increased the desire for many in care to get a smartphone. Family and friends were not allowed to visit, and the residents wanted to know what was happening outside the facility.


One lady who springs to mind is Joyce. She was a hip 96-year-old. Joyce had always been very social and kept up to date with the local and international news.

Joyce asked her son to get her a smartphone. He purchased it, set her up with an email address and added family members to her contacts. Then he dropped the package off at the front door and later rang her new phone to see how she was getting on.

Joyce was pretty excited when it arrived and asked me to show her how it all worked. I showed her how to turn it on, charge it and answer calls. I didn’t want to overwhelm her with too much information at once.

When her phone rang for the first time, she yelled out for me to come and show her how to answer it as she had forgotten. I showed her how, and she talked to her son for a while. She then called me back to check if the call had been hung up correctly.

An elderly woman looks at a smartphone, with her adult granddaughter.
Elderly woman being shown how to use a smart phone by her grandaughter

Next, she wanted to see the emailed pictures of her granddaughter that her son said he had sent her. I showed her the difference between the email and phone icons, how to open her mail app and tap on an email to open it. I had to reshow her many times, but when she finally managed to open the email and see her granddaughter’s photo, she was very pleased with herself. Of course, then she wanted to save it. 

She quickly picked up making calls on the new phone, but email was very foreign to her, and she struggled with that the most, forever asking “Where does it go” “How do I…?  She often had to call on me or other staff members to remind her how to open her emails and find a particular one. 

With time and repetition, Joyce soon managed to make calls and check and send emails independently, and with each little accomplishment, she gained confidence, although she did sometimes still get mixed up with email messages and text messages. 

I also showed her how to video chat; she would spend ages chatting with family. However, there was always something that I would have to show her each time, and she always wanted me nearby in case something went wrong.

She never ventured any further than this. All the other apps were just too confusing for her, but she did achieve enough to keep her in happy contact with family and friends during a challenging time.


Suzie’s daughter also sent her a smartphone during lockdown, however, she never wanted to bother us, so she would not ask if she needed help. She gave up after a few weeks and put the phone in her drawer, choosing instead to come to the office and ask for the landline…. 

Can’t win them all!


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