Making Phone Calls on the iPhone Easier for Parents with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia

Will Sansbury
5 min readSep 2, 2022
Photo by Georg Arthur Pflueger on Unsplash

My father was diagnosed with early onset dementia in his early sixties. He’ll turn seventy-one in a few months, and the disease has progressed to the point that he struggles with everyday tasks that were once easy for him. Among those is using his iPhone to call his family members.

Socialization is a significant contributor to slowing the progression of dementia, so losing the ability to stay in touch with the people he loves independently bothers me. After watching him struggle to call his sister the other day, I decided that I had to find a way to make his iPhone easier for him to use.

I surveyed a few apps that claim to solve this problem, such as Easierphone and Senior Safety Phone, but they all have a common pitfall: They introduce a new, unfamiliar user interface. Dad is struggling to use the user interface he’s known for over a decade, so introducing a new UI didn't seem viable, no matter how simple. I also could not find a way to make these apps the default interface, so they would rely on Dad successfully opening the app to use it.

I needed a simple, native way to give Dad easy access to call his loved ones, and I found it in one of the most complex areas of iOS: Shortcuts.

Using Shortcuts, I put the faces of Dad’s loved ones on his home screen so that he could call someone just by tapping their photo. (There’s a reach out and touch someone joke here, but I’m trying to stop making jokes that folks under 35 won’t understand.)

  1. Open the Shortcuts app.
  2. Tap the + at the top right of the screen to create a new shortcut.
  3. In Shortcut Name, enter the name of one of the loved ones.
  4. Tap ⊕ Add Action. (You may see Suggestions from Your Apps with a section called Call. If this is the case, you can select a contact and skip to step 9.)
  5. Select the Apps tab, then scroll down to and tap Phone.
  6. Tap Call.
  7. In the Call action, tap Contact.
  8. Select the loved one’s contact.
  9. Tap the blue sliders icon at the top right (to the left of the close icon).
  10. Tap Add to Home Screen.
  11. In the HOME SCREEN NAME AND ICON section, tap the icon and select Choose Photo.
  12. Find and tap a photo of the loved one.
  13. Scale the photo, so the loved one’s face takes up most of the square.
  14. Tap Choose. Your photo library will open.
  15. Tap Add at the top right. The Shortcuts app will close, and you’ll return to the home screen, where you’ll now have looks like an app that has the person’s face with their name below it. You can tap that app to make a phone call to them immediately.

I haven’t yet set Dad up with this system, so I’m not sure if it’ll result in him staying in easier contact with everyone (or a drastic increase in the number of butt-dials), but I hope that this gives Dad a way to keep in touch with his loved ones and hold on to his independence a little longer.

UPDATE: Yeah, so accidental calls were a problem, but I’ve updated the Shortcut to address it.

With some quick additions to the Shortcut, Dad now gets a prompt that asks him if he meant to make a phone call. It also subtly reminds Dad of his relationship to each person.

I also added a widget from Widgetsmith that helps Dad stay oriented on what day, date, and time it is.

The new Shortcut is fairly simple, but I’m sharing it here so you can copy it if you’d like. It is very important that you use the Stop this shortcut action as shown; without it, the Shortcut runs rampant and eats up all the phone’s memory, causing it to fail.

I hope it helps some other folks who are loving a parent through dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. If you’re walking that journey right now, know you’re not alone, and you’re doing a great job loving your parent. If you need someone to talk to, please reach out. If you don’t have anyone to talk to, talk to me. You can find me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter under my name (Will Sansbury or willsansbury).

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Will Sansbury

Product and design leader who creates successful products and high-performing team cultures by putting people first