Seniors evaluate gadgets designed to make lives easier

| Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 8:25 p.m.

Rosemarie Schawalder, 86, spoke slowly to an interactive coffee maker, trying to tell the device the time of day to get it ready to brew a steaming pot of coffee.

“I'm sorry,” the coffee pot said as Schawalder stumbled over the numbers. “I didn't get that. Would you like to set the clock or set the brewing time?”

“That is so easy, and I messed it up,” Schawalder said, shaking her head, while her fellow “Tech Test Pilots” chuckled.

Residents of the Passavant Retirement Community in Zelienople gathered last week to take for a test run products that are designed to help the elderly with everyday tasks.

Lutheran SeniorLife technology associate Sharon Whalen showed products to residents, including a device that organized and printed a grocery list.

Last week, the group tinkered with a giant calculator that had a large display and oversized buttons. The calculator also spoke numbers.

Mary Lou Neff, 83, a Passavant resident for more than nine years, had trouble hearing the calculator's tinny voice when there was background noise. She asked the other testers to stay quiet so she could listen.

One of the biggest complaints about the product, Whalen noted: The instruction card for the calculator was tiny, nearly impossible to read.

Many of the products tested by the group have a serious purpose. For example, the group once tested a pair of GPS shoes, which would allow someone to track the location of the person wearing them. For adults who suffer from memory loss, the tracking device could be invaluable if the person gets lost.

Dutch Weber, 91, a Lutheran pastor and resident for seven years, said, “Amen” and “Hallelujah” as he spoke into a headset for a voice amplification device designed to allow people with voice problems to be heard more clearly. The microphone was attached to a speaker that could be worn on a belt.

Whalen said that though companies will occasionally send a product, the Lutheran center buys many of them to test.

Whalen also demonstrated an iPad, as the Lutheran center is buying three of them for residents to use. Whalen showed different apps that would be useful, including one from AARP. She also explained Face Time, saying that residents could use it for free to see and talk to family members who live far away.

Whalen encouraged group members to embrace the technology available to them and to talk about the iPads to fellow residents. The center also has a technology room, featuring computers that are set up to allow the elderly residents to browse the Internet with ease.

At the end of the product testing, the group fills out surveys, rating on a scale of 1 to 5 ease of use, effectiveness, cost and whether they'd buy it or recommend it.

Once the group tests a product, Whalen said, they'll visit the product manufacturer's website, and if there's a place to provide input, they send a message indicating if they liked it and offering improvements.

“It makes you feel like you have input,” said Nadine Simon, 78, a five-year resident of Passavant. “It makes you feel like you're contributing.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or

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