Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Elders of the World, Unite!

When I joined the ranks of not-as-young-as-I-used-to-be, I experienced a series of shocks. It must have been the same, only worse, for newly disabled people who found an unintentionally but jarringly hostile physical world out there. It might be worth unpacking some of the hazards confronting the Republic of the Elderly to explain what I’m talking about.

Here are a few examples of the difficulties with which folks with impaired vision and/or mobility contend every day:

1. Let’s start with an easy one. The best foodie sources for elders sell fairly good precooked meals. They are refrigerated and can be tonight’s dinner or stuck in a freezer for later. They all have cooking or heating instructions. But the specialty stores I know print cooking instructions in exactly the same tiny typeface as the list of ingredients, which are usually minuscule. There is normally label room allowing a slightly larger typeface for a couple of lines of heating tips. I have complained, but corporate management seems indifferent to the problems of its older clientele.

2. Those of us who spend time online must contend with the fact that Internet presentations are often conducted in a light pastel color, with links brought up in another light pastel shade, making the text so dim that it is close to unreadable for people with low vision. The site designers and coders may well include bright young people I taught at MIT. But how come they haven’t made their cool websites more readable for those of us with less-than-perfect vision?

3. TV dramas also present a problem. Some of my favorite sources of mindless violence -- like “NCIS,” “MI-5,” and “Masterpiece Mystery” – seem to shoot many of their scenes in the dark. Whether shot at night, or in cellars, or in other unlighted venues, many scenes are close to invisible to people like me.

4. Steps leading up into stores and restaurants often lack railings. I find that oldsters’ greatest concern is the danger of a fall, and they need something to hang onto. Here again, management seems unaware of the risks to people like their own parents or grandparents, not to mention lawsuits.

5. In my supermarket many desirable items are on the bottom shelf, requiring somehow bending in half or lying on the floor to check it out. Also, some older folks are on a low-sodium regime. It is a monumental pain to search through hundreds of cans, bottles, etc. to pick out the low-sodium versions. Has no one thought of providing a special section or at least shelf?

6. And have you ever wrestled with the little plastic triangles that have to be brought into mathematically precise conjunction in order to open a pill bottle, and which in my case often requires a chisel and hammer, leaving the floor strewn with pills?

The vendors concerned will, of course, be unmoved by the whining of an ordinary senior citizen. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, commerce is not missionary work. My impression is that the current marketing style of commercial America was set a couple of decades ago with a marketing strategy based on the fact that the demographic to target was the 15 to 24 crowd. That may be true for a while longer, but corporate America had better wake up to the fact that US demographics are changing. The 2010 Census projected that by 2025 – 14 years away – there will be 80% more elderly citizens, while the percentages of workers and kids will be up by only 16%. These trends are not completely new. In the last decade, the percentage of Americans 65 and older grew 15.1%, while the percentage of under-18’s grew only 2%.

The marketing manager today should tell her team that the changing demographics call for another look at business models and profit centers. With a few well-advertised improvements to make life easier for elders, businesses will make more money, and their bonus will be a special corner in Commerce Heaven reserved for people who do well by doing good for the elders of the world.