Review: Apple Watch faces its toughest challenge yet: Grandma

The Washington Post

Is the new Apple Watch ready for Grandma?

The Series 4 Apple Watch now in stores pitches itself as a Food and Drug Administration-cleared “proactive health monitor” and a “guardian” that will call help if you take a hard fall. Its screen is 30% larger. You won’t see Apple say “senior citizen” in ads — yet suddenly, grandmothers and abuelas, not to mention opas, are thinking about getting one. Adult children looking to keep parents safe are curious too.

So I sought help in reviewing the new Watch from a gang of tech-savvy seniors. Seven members of the Computer Club of Rossmoor, a 55-plus community in Northern California, helped me set up, poke and prod the new model. No seniors were harmed in testing the fall-detection tech.

Just when you think I’m critical, older adults have even less tolerance for tech that isn’t clear, reliable and affordable. There wasn’t a technophobe among my helpers. After our tests, one of them — a satisfied Apple Watch owner — decided she’d definitely upgrade. None of the others was sold.


When the Watch debuted in 2015, most seniors couldn’t see the point. As of earlier this year, only 4% of Americans over 65 had bought any kind of smartwatch, according to Forrester Research. But with this fourth version, my gang was curious. “It’s one of those iPhones that’s been shrunk to wrist size by Dick Tracy,” says Art Salzfass, 83.

Good on Apple for recognizing tech has a lot to offer the older adults often overlooked by Silicon Valley. That we’re even talking about FDA clearance shows how the Apple Watch has matured into a truly personal kind of gadget. This is the first version that feels speedy and connected enough to think of as a stand-alone device.

What I learned from my elders is that the Apple Watch has lots to offer seniors not deterred by a $400 starting price. It’s pretty good at encouraging you to exercise. It can gather data about your heart. And you’re less likely to miss calls when your phone is on your wrist (yes, like Dick Tracy).

Just don’t let the hype about the new Watch’s capabilities get ahead of its reality. It’s heavier than some traditional watches and one more thing you’ll have to charge daily. Some of those new health functions have yet to prove how much they’ll help. And as a substitute for your phone, it still has a pretty small screen — and even tinier buttons.

Buzz about the Watch’s new health capabilities was the biggest draw for my seniors. But studying the fine print splashed a little cold water on their expectations.

Let’s start with that fall detector, a competitor to the Life Alert “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” wearable. With the new Apple Watch, a hard fall is supposed to activate a message on its screen asking if you need help. If you don’t respond, it will place an SOS call from your wrist. “That is a really neat feature at our age, instead of a necklace,” says John Helmus, 76.


Trust but verify, right? I didn’t ask any of my seniors to take a plunge. But in the interest of science, I’ve tried jumping off ledges and throwing myself onto furniture. The thing never went off. (The feature is on by default only for people older than 65, but I turned mine on.) It’s possible, even likely, that the Watch could tell I was faking.

What’s important is actual falls, not stunts. Apple says it studied the falls of 2,500 people of varying ages. Yet the company hasn’t said how often it catches real falls or sets off false alarms. This isn’t like claiming the “best camera ever” on a smartphone — if Apple wants us to think of its products as life aids, it ought to show us the data. Even better: peer-reviewed studies.

Apple’s disclaimer says: “Apple Watch cannot detect all falls. The more physically active you are, the more likely you are to trigger Fall Detection due to high impact activity that can appear to be a fall.”

Any additional protection is welcome. But based on Apple’s careful language, it’s best to think of the Watch as a supplement to, not a replacement for, other protections. “We probably need to wait another generation, which is true of all tech,” says Jane Salzfass, 73.

The Apple Watch has always measured pulse, and Series 4 adds the FDA-cleared electrocardiogram — a breakthrough for consumer tech. Hold your finger on the round button on the side of the Watch and it will read your heart’s electrical signals in about 30 seconds.

But that app won’t arrive until later this year, so I couldn’t compare it to a hospital-grade monitor. Apple received FDA clearance for the EKG app as well as the ability to detect irregular heart rhythms. But clearance isn’t the same as approval. Apple had to prove safety and performance through clinical validation, but approval requires a lot more testing. (A summary of Apple’s research released by the FDA shows it claims to detect an atrial fibrillation 99% of the time.)


But the FDA lists some important caveats about these functions in its clearance letters to Apple. It says the irregular rhythm detector isn’t for people who’ve been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. And both the EKG and heart rhythm function are “not intended to replace traditional methods of diagnosis or treatment.” Some cardiologists worry that people taking Watch EKGs could result in a flood of unnecessary office visits by healthy people.

The heart sensors can let people with heart conditions or anxiety know when they might need to take it easy. Margery Widroe, 80, who’s been using a Series 3 Apple Watch for a few months, recounted to our group a recent incident when she was at the grocery store and her Watch alerted her to a high heart rate. She took it as a valuable cue to go home and take her medication. “It could be a major help in your life,” she says.

While the Watch will continue to grow as a medical device, it may be more useful now to think of it as a wellness aid. It offers a three-part view of your daily activity, displayed in rings: your overall activity level, how much time you’ve raised your heart rate in exercise and how often you stand rather than sit. In my life, this holistic view has been more useful than counting steps like other trackers.

My crew’s other interest was the ability of the Apple Watch to replace or at least supplement a phone.

It’s not that seniors don’t love their iPhones. But unlike younger screen addicts, they may not be accustomed to carrying phones everywhere. For them, having the phone strapped to your wrist holds special appeal. “The good thing is you can’t lose it,” says Sandra Lew, 75.

You don’t have to pay $100 extra (plus $10 per month) for the cellular-model Apple Watch to place and receive calls. When you’re within range (sufficient inside most homes), the Watch uses a local wireless connection to your iPhone. The independent cellular connection, first added to last year’s model, is helpful if you want to leave your phone behind entirely — like when you go for a walk — and still receive calls and texts on your main number. Just know that not all carriers support it (such as Xfinity Mobile), and reception on the redesigned Watch can be flaky.


Getting to calls and other functions is a different challenge. The Series 4 Watch has that larger screen area, but it is still just 1.6 inches and unforgiving to unsteady fingers. “I even find my iPhone screen too small,” says Jane Salzfass.

Inbound calls are easy enough: Press the green phone button that pops up when your watch rings and gently taps your wrist. But when I asked testers to try to make a call from the Watch, it was an adventure fishing out the right buttons. “You’re going to have to know what these icons mean,” says Rhona Lishinky, 67.

You can speak commands — raise your wrist and say, “Call Geoffrey” — and have Siri attempt to help. That works faster on the Series 4 than past models, but the voice assistant’s answers are still pretty bumbling. Other useful functions are on physical buttons, if you know their secret code: Double-tap the side button to activate Apple Pay, or press and hold the Digital Crown to summon Siri.

Best of all, the Apple Watch is customizable. You can increase the size of type and choose from a variety of watch faces. My recommendation: Take the time when you first get a Watch to set up its face and to tame excess alerts, which by default bring all the dings and boops from your phone onto your wrist. Those steps will make it less likely to end up as a hand-me-down for the grandkids.

Fowler writes for the Washington Post.