By Edward Lucas in THE TIMES, 30 December 2019
I offer a new year’s resolution for anyone who provides a product or service to old people. Before designing anything, try it yourself. But not with your youthful or prime-of-life limbs, senses and reflexes. Wear thick, uncomfortable (preferably painful) gloves to mimic the effect of weak, arthritic wrists and fingers. Don a pair of cracked sunglasses: a taste of life with elderly eyesight. Put in earplugs and play annoying background noise, loudly. Tie your laces together and put stones in your shoes to make standing and walking difficult. Do everything with an uncomfortably full bladder, with bad jetlag. That, roughly, is how it feels to be old.
Not every elderly person is frail or muddled. But life does get harder as you age. A week watching my 90-year-old parents battle the modern world makes me wonder if a malevolent mastermind has created a special version of The Hunger Games for old people.
Amid the mince pies, sprouts and charades, the visiting technical support team swings into action. We reset passwords, tweak the wifi frequency, update apps and software, install missing drivers, change printer cartridges, restore deleted files and match chargers to devices. We bring dormant mobile phones to life, skirmishing with expired credit and quiescent Sim cards. We wield tiny screwdrivers, click through menus and parse instruction manuals.
Amid the blizzard of chores, I fume. Not because I begrudge the time but because the products and services aimed at people like me (and younger) are designed with so little thought to people of my parents’ generation. Why is it so difficult to grasp that eyesight, hearing, muscle tone, stamina and most of all memory decline as people age? It takes longer to understand new things and it becomes harder to remember them. Don’t the people who run these companies have parents themselves?
A particular bête noire this Christmas was a 90th birthday present I gave my mother in May. She wanted a portable digital radio. I chose the Azatom Woodlands, nice-looking and British-made. Its capabilities are amazing — it works as a Bluetooth speaker for my phone, and it would play sounds from a memory card, were anyone to want that. But the effort that went into its design foundered on usability. The instruction manual is terse, vague and ill written. The device is far too modern to have boringly obvious knobs for tuning and volume. Instead you are supposed to use a flimsy, easy-to-lose remote control. My father has written books on physics and philosophy. My mother mastered iPad email in her eighties. My brother runs tech companies. None of us can make this machine switch stations simply. Its minimalist elegance makes it a super-cool paperweight.
My aunt moved into a new block of flats supposedly purpose-built for elderly residents. Nobody at Richmond Villages seems to have thought that a full-sized dishwasher and oven was a poor use of space. The fridge was huge and the freezer tiny: the other way round would have been far more practical. The doors fitted flush with the carpet: no room for treasured rugs. The capacious walk-in shower would have suited an amorous couple, my aunt noted, when some storage, a grab rail and room for a stool would have been a lot handier.
One solution would be prizes. Which restaurants will invest in acoustic baffles and ditch the background music, perhaps also providing half-size portions for senior appetites? The deep-pocketed over-sixties will flock there. Supermarkets that provide loos will have our loyalty too. As your bladder shrinks and your valves weaken, easy access to a lavatory is the difference between anxiety and humiliation or comfort and joy.
Along with the bouquets, I would award brickbats, especially to helplines that refuse to allow me to make phone calls on behalf of my elderly relatives. I have a “lasting power of attorney”, giving me legal authority to represent them on everything from daily trivia to switching off life support. But this has no digital equivalent. It sits uselessly in a folder while I rage down the phone at an NHS jobsworth who tells me that the local surgery does not accept emails or scanned documents and I will have to bring the original tomorrow.
With my cybersecurity hat on, this problem seems easily solvable: software on a phone or computer could issue a one-off cryptographic token, signed by me and instantly checkable by the recipient, allowing them to deal with me as the patient’s representative for the authorised purpose (such as renewing a prescription, making an appointment or checking test results). But whoever designs it, please note: run it past a panel of pensioners first.