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As people grow older, important daily activities, like dressing, bathing, and talking on the telephone, can become increasingly difficult to manage without help. Many older persons depend on helpful products or devices to help carry out these activities.

About 94% of American households have telephone service. Telephones provide a vital link to the outside world. Especially for older persons living alone, the telephone is essential for contact to help in emergencies and relatives and friends who live far away. When most people need information, they simply pick up the phone and call someone. But using a telephone may not be so simple for many older persons with physical, sensory, or memory problems.

Fortunately, the telephone is one device that is changing to meet the needs of older persons and persons with disabilities. Within the last 15 years there has been a vast increase in the variety of phones available and the different features that phones offer. Prices have decreased, and choices have increased. For older persons and persons with disabilities, today’s new phone features make communication by phone much easier. Some people who could not use the old standard rotary phone can now make and receive calls using features found in many new phones.

Many older phones have not been updated with modular jacks and wiring. New jacks can be installed by the phone company, although it is quite simple to do. You or someone you know might be able to do the installation. The modular jacks make it easy to add a new phone.

Telephone Devices for Hearing Impairments

Hearing loss is common to many older persons. Without helpful devices, hearing loss can seriously hinder telephone conversations.

A common problem of older persons is difficulty hearing the caller. Voice amplifiers raise volume level on the receiver, so you can hear the other end of the conversation. Because these devices also reduce background noise for clearer hearing and better understanding, non-hearing impaired persons often appreciate voice amplifiers when calling from a noisy place. Voice amplifiers are also useful in situations with poor connections or static on the line. Many voice amplifiers are portable (a & b), making them helpful for people who travel and need amplification on more than one phone.

a. This portable voice amplifier straps onto the receiver of the handset. b. This amplifier plugs into the phone and can be set to a comfortable listening level.

Simply making sounds louder is often not enough for people who have high-frequency hearing loss. High-frequency hearing loss makes it hard to distinguish consonants. The word “make” may sound like “bake” or “mate”. An alternative to a voice amplifier is an amplified phone, which makes words clearer as well as louder. Amplified phones work like hearing aids, selectively increasing the volume of only the high frequency sounds.

People with hearing loss may also have a hard time even hearing the phone ring. Newer phones usually have built-in ringer amplification control. There are also add-on devices (c) to amplify the volume of the ringer. Some phones have a visual ring signal (d) that flashes a light to alert you when the phone rings.

c. A ringer amplifier allows you to adjust the volume of the ringer. d. The light on this signaling device flashes when the telephone rings.

People who use a hearing aid must be sure to use a hearing-aid compatible handset. Noisy feedback often results when the microphone in the hearing aid comes near the speaker in the telephone receiver. Hearing aid compatible handsets eliminate this feedback so that you get a clean, undistorted signal.

Eliminating background noise, like from a television, can make it easier to talk on the phone. Using a headset can also eliminate background noise. Because the headset goes over your ears, you can hear the other speaker clearly while screening out the background noise.

People who are deaf can use a TDD (Telecommunications Device for the Deaf). Also known as a TTY, a TDD (e) is a typewriter-like instrument that sends text messages through the telephone. It consists of a keyboard for sending messages and a digital screen for reading the message from the sender. TDD calls require either that users on both ends of a call have a TDD, or that a relay service be used. Every state has relay services that provide an operator to act as a medium between the deaf and hearing person. The operator listens to the voice caller and types what the person is saying into a TDD for the person who is deaf. The operator also reads the typed messages from the person who is deaf to the hearing person. Call your local phone company or check your phone book for information on the relay service in your state.

TDD phone conversations can often be cumbersome and time-consuming. Another option to a TDD is a text telephone, which uses an existing computer with a modem. Text telephones are compatible with TDDs. Unlike TDDs, which only display one line at a time on a narrow display, messages sent over the text telephone appear in multiple lines on the full computer screen. The messages appear simultaneously as they are being written, making the conversation flow more naturally.

e. A TDD has a keypad for sending messages and a digital display for reading messages from the sender.

Telephone Devices for Speech Impairments

People with difficulty speaking also often use TDDs. TDDs allow you to “write” your phone calls, rather than speak them.

If other people have a hard time hearing you because of a speech impairment, weak speech handsets (a) can increase the volume of your voice. An electronic artificial larynx (b) reproduces the sound of your voice.

a. A weak speech handset allows you to raise the volume of your voice, so that others will hear you better. b. When held to your throat while talking on the phone, the electronic larnyx will reproduce the sound of your voice.

Telephone Devices for Mobility Impairments

As people age, they often find it harder to move around. They may move more slowly, or it may be difficult or painful to walk. Simply getting up to answer the phone can be a dreaded chore.

Phones that can be answered from across the room are useful, such as a remote speaker phone (a). A remote control button allows you to answer the speaker phone from a short distance or to summon emergency help if needed.

Voice recognition is another feature useful for persons with mobility impairments. Voice recognition features are now offered on many phones (b). This feature works by programming simple voice commands into the phone. For example, if you say “Call Mary” the phone will automatically dial Mary’s number. People with many different types of impairments can benefit from new voice recognition technology.

a. Remote speakerphones can be answered from across the room. b. The voice print phone recognizes your voice commands and performs the desired function.

Cordless phones (c) let you keep the phone close by so it is not necessary to get up to answer a call. Answering machines (d) provide another option for older persons who find it difficult getting up to answer the phone. You can store calls until you are near the phone, and you can screen nuisance calls.

c. Cordless phones are light and portable, so you do not need to get up to answer the phone. d. Answering machines are useful for storing and screening calls.

Rearranging furniture often makes it easier to use the phone. Placing a table near a favorite seat and placing the phone on this table can save steps. This may require some new wiring. To prevent a fall, avoid having long telephone wires cross the floor where people will be walking.

Telephone Devices for Hand Impairments

New phone features can help older people with arthritis or other conditions that limit use of the hands and fingers.

Many older persons have difficulty pushing buttons. Manually dialing a rotary phone can be difficult for a person with limited finger dexterity. Large button templates (a) for push button phones make dialing easier. Many phones now have a “re-dial” button (b). These are useful because you do not have to continue pushing a long series of numbers if you get a busy signal or if you want to call the same person twice or more in a row. Similarly, many phones have programmable memory features (b) to store numbers that you dial the most. By pushing only one or two buttons, the phone will automatically dial the correct sequence of numbers.

a. The raised large buttons on this template are easier to push than the phone’s original buttons. b. Redial and memory functions remember and dial telephone numbers for you.

Older persons also often have difficulty holding the handset. A shoulder holder (c) can help because it supports the phone on your shoulder. Many people like shoulder holders because they can do other things with their hands while speaking on the phone or sitting on hold. However, over prolonged use, shoulder holders can cause neck and shoulder pain. Most people have faulty posture when cradling a phone — kinking the neck, pulling up the shoulder, or tilting the head. If you use the phone frequently, you might prefer a headset (d), which rests on the head with earphones. Headsets may also help people with minor hearing loss. The headphones help you hear the person on the other end more clearly while filtering out background noise.

c. A shoulder holder is helpful if you have difficulty grasping the phone. d. Telephone headsets rest over your ears, leaving your hands free to do other things.

Telephone Devices for Vision Impairments

Many older persons experience a loss of vision, often resulting from glaucoma, macular degeneration, or cataracts.

Features that make the buttons more visible are helpful for persons with vision impairments. Numbers and letters should be large, clear, and easy to read. Extra large buttons (a) and illuminated keypads, which are visible in the dark, may help. Good color contrast between the letters and the background, like black letters on a white surface, is particularly important. Enlarged stick-on numbers for keypads and enlarged number templates for rotary dial phones are available free of charge from many phone companies. If vision loss is more severe, dialing accessories exist (b) that audibly repeat the number when you press a key on any telephone.

a. Extra-large numbers are easy to see and push. b. This device repeats the numbers you dial.

Persons with vision impairments can take advantage of new telephone features and services offered by many telephone companies, like auto-announce. Auto-announce is a caller identification system. When a call comes in, an announcement plays between rings. It will either be the callers phone number, or a message that you recorded associated with that number. For example, you can program it to say “It’s Mary” whenever Mary’s number shows up on the call id system. Whether you answer the phone or not, the system logs your calls for you to play back later. The system will play back the messages and the times of each call.

Other devices, such as memory, redial, paging, and voice recognition features, are also helpful for persons with vision impairments.

Telephone Devices for Cognitive Impairments

For older persons who suffer from memory loss or cognitive impairments, such as Alzheimer’s disease, the memory and redial features mentioned previously are helpful because you do not have to remember a long sequence of numbers. Memory dial allows you to program frequently called numbers, then make a call simply by pressing a button.

For persons who use a cordless phone and forget where they put it down, a paging feature is invaluable. When you push a button on the phone base (a), the cordless phone will buzz, making it easy to locate.

Picture phones (b) are also useful for persons with severe memory loss. A picture of the person or place to be called is placed next to or on the button. When you push the button, the phone automatically dials that person or place.

a. Paging features are useful if you constantly misplace your cordless phone. b. This picturephone, designed for children, can be modified for use by adults.

Special Services

Toll free call forwarding to your existing line is easy. Simply choose a call forwarding number and those calls will be forwarded to your existing line. If you make alot of international calls, try using international callback or VoIP service to get the best rates for each call.

Some phone companies offer special services for older persons and persons with disabilities. Check your phone book for information, or call your phone company directly. Most phone companies carry the following services, which older persons may find valuable.

Call Blocking

With the recent flood of advertisements for expensive toll calls, such as group “chat” services, it may be helpful to take advantage of call blocking services. Call blocking prevents outgoing calls to certain numbers, such as 900 telephone numbers or long-distance numbers.

Call Identification

Call id allows you to view your caller’s name and number before you decide whether to answer. Some phones audibly announce the name and number so it is not necessary to get up to view the display.

Emergency Response Systems

A person wears a device, such as a cordless pendant or a wrist band with a button. When the button is pushed, the telephone automatically dials an emergency number. In most cases, the button can also be used to answer incoming calls. Many emergency response systems also have an activity monitor that automatically dials an emergency number if the phone has not been used for a specified period.

Nuisance Calls

People rely heavily on their phones. Obscene or annoying phone calls cause anxiety and distrust in people towards their telephones. These calls are particularly troublesome for older persons with disabilities. If you get an obscene or annoying call, hang up immediately. If the caller keeps bothering you, report it to your phone company. You can also use call id services or an answering machine to screen calls first.

Voice Message Delivery System

The telephone will automatically call a pre-programmed phone list with an automated message. You choose who gets the message, and what time to call.

Further Information

Occupational therapists are trained to assess home environments, including telephones. They can make helpful recommendations to make daily tasks easier and increase home safety. Contact the American Occupational Therapy Association at 301-948-9626 for a list of occupational therapists who work in your region.

Project LINK is a free, national information service that mails catalogs and other product literature from companies that make or sell helpful products. Since no names or addresses are released to companies, the confidentiality of the consumer is protected. To join Project LINK, call: (voice/TTY/TDD) 1-800-628-2281 or 716-829-3141, or write to:

Center for Assistive Technology
University at Buffalo
515 Kimball Tower
Buffalo, NY 14214-3079

The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Aging offers a number of videos, pamphlets, and articles, some directed at health care professionals, and others designed for consumers. One consumer oriented video focuses on telephone features and provides two examples of older persons who had their phone systems updated to meet their special needs. To receive a free product catalog, call (voice/TTY/TDD) 1-800-628-2281.

The Tele-Consumer Hotline is an independent and impartial consumer education service that offers free advice on telephone equipment and services to people with disabilities. The Hotline offers tips on saving money, relay services, and equipment. For more information, call 800-332-1124 (voice/TTY) or write to:

Tele-Consumer Hotline
1910 K Street NW, Suite 610
Washington DC 20006.

Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc. (TDI) is a nonprofit organization that promotes communications accessibility for the hearing impaired. Contact TDI by writing or calling:

8719 Colesville Rd, #300
Silver Spring, MD 20910.

Voice: 301-589-3786 TDD: 301-589-3006

State Assistive Technology Programs provide a variety of assistive technology services. RESNA is a national association that provides information and technical assistance to these programs. For information on your state’s Assistive Technology Program, write to:

RESNA – Technical Assistance Project
1101 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20036

Voice: 202 857-1199 • TTY: 703-524-6639

Center for Assistive Technology