Cyber Safety for People Living With Dementia

Caregiver, patient expert
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In the age of cyber sophistication, scammers and others can wreak havoc with our lives if we even momentarily let down our guard. For older adults who aren’t technologically savvy, the threat may be even greater. For them, like for someone speaking a second language, red flags might go unnoticed. People living with dementia may be at even more risk because of changes in the brain that can cause confusion. Here are tips for us all, including people living with dementia.

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Meet Davis Park, general expert on senior cyber security

Davis Park is director of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing. Through The Piers Project, which is funded by a gift from the estate of Ellie Piers to benefit the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing’s (FPCIW) ongoing mission of using technology to enhance wellbeing in older adults, Park has made a point to promoting senior safety on computers. He's happy to share his tips for seniors.

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Meet Hazel Minnick, who has lived with dementia for nearly 20 years

Hazel Minnick and I met through the internet. I was stunned that someone who has lived with Alzheimer’s for over 18 years would be communicating so well on the computer. But her inspiring story goes far beyond that. How Dancing Changed the Trajectory of One Woman’s Alzheimer’s Disease relates more of Hazel’s story. With time, Hazel has learned to trust me online so I felt comfortable asking her for her own tried and true cyber security tips for people living with dementia.

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Housekeeping: Who is speaking on which slide

We’ll begin with tips provided by Davis Park, move on to tips provided by Hazel Minnick, and end with some insight from the author of the slideshow who has grown to know Hazel. Initials will be used by each tip: DP for Davis and HM for Hazel, and CBB for Hazel’s friend and HealthCentral writer Carol Bradley Bursack.

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What we should all do but fall short on – strong passwords

DP: Passwords -

  1. Twelve-to-15 characters: focus on length over complexity.
  2. Strategically place special characters or symbols to avoid patterns rather than grouping them at the end.
  3. Using different passwords on each of your online accounts.
  4. Add another layer of protection, if available, such as finger prints or security questions.
  5. Don’t panic. Most websites, applications, and software limit the number of password guesses, which prevents someone from “nonstop guessing” your password.

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Keep your software up to date

DP: Microsoft and Apple are doing their part and so is your antivirus company, but if you don’t make use of updates, they can’t help you. Staying up to date will help prevent people from hacking your computer, laptop, smartphone, and even, in some cases, your smart home device (like Amazon Alexa or Google Home). It will also alert you to websites and downloads that could be an entry point for suspicious software and reduce the likelihood that malicious software is installed on your computer.

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Use only trusted Wi-Fi connections and resources

DP: While our mobile devices come with wireless internet capable of connecting us while we travel, be careful. Hackers exploit free or insecure Wi-Fi networks. Avoid conducting personal business on community devices, such as public computers. Software may have been installed to track what you type and where you go on the internet to steal your information. When in doubt, try to use your personal Wi-Fi, hotspot, or the network connection on your smartphone.

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Google It! Yahoo It! Bing It!

DP: Regardless of what search engine you favor, use it to research an unfamiliar website before giving up your information. Oftentimes, hackers create a link that may appear, at first glance, to be a legitimate website to trick you into giving up your personal data. It doesn’t hurt to research even a familiar site since some of the scams are so sophisticated, especially if you aren’t a technology native.

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Safeguard your personal information

DP: Personal information such as date of birth, social security numbers, bank account numbers, and passwords are what hackers are after. Protect them. Be wary of unsolicited phone calls and emails, as well. Note: Most banks are not allowed to ask you for passwords or personal identification numbers (PINs). Research the site before providing personal information and remember to check a site’s validity if you are contacted by someone wanting you to click a link or provide personal information.

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When dementia is your partner use extra precautions

CBB: Hazel Minnick has lived with early onset Alzheimer’s disease for over 18 years. She is generous with her time so I knew she’d be happy to help us understand how someone who has dementia can safely use technology.

HM: I have been active on the internet since the beginning, but as crime has increased and my Alzheimer’s has become an issue, I’ve set up extra rules which I’m happy to share.

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Chose your 'friends' wisely

HM:

  • I do not allow live Facetime.
  • I do not solicit or accept “friends” unless I know that they are genuinely interested in my Alzheimer’s awareness cause.
  • I do not allow direct posting on my Facebook page and I systematically review my site for inappropriate comments.
  • I use delete and block consistently.

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Don’t talk to strangers

HM:

  • I do not browse or surf the net randomly.
  • I never give out personal information or information on business accounts.
  • I use a “pay as you go” card for internet use.
  • I do not chat with strangers.

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Additional suggestions for people living with dementia

CBB: What I’ve learned getting to know Hazel and interacting with her on internet is that she primarily uses Messenger as her communication tool, she doesn’t often react immediately, and she frequently answers questions that require long replies or historic information by sending me PDF copies of pages from her books where she has already addressed the topic of my question. These all seem like good, safe approaches.

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What I’ve learned about internet safety from interacting with Hazel

CBB: Hazel has taught me a few things about using the internet even though she never directly addressed these tips. First, Messenger helps you keep your email address more private because you can interact with strangers through this third party app before you give someone who you don’t know your personal email address.

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More lessons from Hazel and others who live with dementia

CBB: In addition to protecting one’s email address, Messenger keeps a log of conversations which many of us without dementia can find helpful. I’m certain that this log would be extremely useful in keeping conversations organized for people with memory problems and, if needed, it allows them to easily keep a record of conversations if they want to wait and ask a loved one for assistance.

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Takeaway

We all need to be cautious on the internet. Younger people, as well as older adults who are not living with dementia, should follow the suggestions provided by Davis Park. Additionally, most of us would do well to follow Hazel’s suggestions. They are sensible for everyone, even those who have no cognitive problems. As a person who makes a living via internet use I’m careful, yet I learned from both Davis and Hazel, and we all hope that you’ve picked up at least one new tip.