Making Life easier for an Ageing Population
The devil's in the detail, not the general mission statements
The most economical way to cope with an ageing population is to ensure that the elderly can continue to be useful and independent until they drop. Keeping them full members of the community is also the most humane policy.
Medicine and gadgetry do their best. Today most people of seventy-five are livelier and healthier than their grandparents at sixty-five. But at the same time, there are trends to make life unnecessarily harder for anyone who is not actually disabled, but their eyes, ears, legs, reaction time, memory, or bottoms are not quite as good as a young man's. It is the young men who are making the running.
Commerce joins in the attack on oldies with product design with confusing signage, such as which way is On or Off. The new plasma screens with digital TV are made to look really sleek and fine by reducing the buttons almost to dots, with labels like tiny scratches. Press the wrong button to change the volume and the elderly may never find their station again, when the little hieroglyphics on a confusing array of remote controls cannot get them on to any channel lower than 256.
Printers in the past designed fonts with great attention to legibility for fast reading – hence weighting and serifs, and black print on white paper. On lit-up electronic screens, on the other hand, the clearest fonts are unweighted sanserif, and on-screen text looks great with fancy backgrounds, including white on colours. Graphic designers use computers now, and thoughtlessly transfer unchanged what looks great on their screen on to print on paper – which is a different medium. For blocks of text, this means increasing difficulty for those with any degree of visual handicap, and disastrous blurring for many learners. A journal of remedial reading once put out an entire issue with white print on black paper. Did – could - anyone read it?
The first computer and software designers took trouble to make everything on screen as legible and accessible as possible. They ensured clear print and edges to windows, and icons for commands were both clear as pictographs and accompanied by clear text labels I still use my outdated computer and Word program whenever I can, because my new latest computer and its latest software rows of toolbars which the non-nerd finds difficult, because the icons are small, smudgy, ambiguous and swiping them to get a text label is liable to result in something unexpected happening. I cannot clearly see or comprehend twenty-six of the icons on the toolbar as I type. But gee, they do look stylish, trendy and unobtrusive.
The latest deed to discourage travel by the elderly on our State public transport is to replace the large black-on-white station signs on railway platforms, with smaller signs of white on light-blue – at, no doubt, considerable cost. Travellers with any degree of visual handicap cannot easily decipher these smaller notices from an incoming train. At night in the dark even people with normal vision may locate the signs only by the larger white squares with numbers on that have been now tacked on to every sign to tell you that it is platform 1 or 2, at, no doubt, considerable cost. (Some people hoped the numbers told them about the pricing zones.) Many commuters know their stations without reading the signs. Others rely on the female announcer on the train to tell them the next station; when, as can happen, the announcement is wrong, they are in trouble.
The changes are made in the interests of today's hobgoblin of uniformity. This is their way to unify the public transport system. Blue shows that you are near a railway, green or orange show that you are near a bus or tram rote. The train operator claims that the changes are necessary for uniform colour-coding and all signage conforms with the Discrimination and Disability Act for the visually impaired. I am not so visually impaired that I cannot read a book a night, but when I tell an otherwise amiable young transport politician that I cannot read the new signs easily, he tells me flatly, "You are wrong." And I am told I am the only one to lodge a complaint. Yet as usual, 'many whinge though few speak up'.
Public transport is also made harder for the elderly and frail by removing comfortable seats or replacing them with metal bars of varying degrees of discomfort. This does not matter in the central business distric with frequent trams and space constraints, but in outlying areas, waiting on convex cold metal in shelters designed to display ads rather than shelter from sun, rain or wind, is to be an object of pity to car-travellers as they whiz past. I was informed that decent seating on station concourses was not possible because druggies would sleep on them
Public broadcasting, too, is also being made less accessible to the elderly. Many people find it hard to discriminate speech against background noise, and this problem increases with age as it becomes harder to hear the higher frequencies of voices. Our national public radio broadcaster increasingly spends scarce resources on backgrounding talk and even announcements with inappropriate noises and music, including drumming that clatters, clashes, batters or thumps. As typical examples, a program on Quakers, those silence-lovers, was messed up with church organ music, and a serious retrospective on the appalling dangers of the Cold War, was treated like a musical entertainment by, presumably, the sound engineers. Now the News has taken to backgrounding translated speech with voices in the original language. Reportedly a director of radio thinks that talks are batshit anyway, and need jazzing up. Complaints are batted off, although it is admitted that I am not the only complainer. Perhaps the Aunties need to amuse themselves. Many professions can become self-serving.
The elderly can be grumpy, can't they! They feel the cold more. Fashions do not help, thus adding to global warming as space heating makes up for warm clothes.
Our public institutions and product design overlook an ageing population that only need a little social thoughtfulness to prevent relegation to expensive care. Independence also often needs continued ability to drive a car. The elderly are not the most accident-free on the roads; I think that one contributing factor is the hassling pressure from other motorists to try to make them drive faster than they feel is safe for them, or being tooted for caution at roundabouts or drive amber lights. I have seen accidents in parking lots when an older person cannot see past a large Four-Wheel-Drive, and is hooted at to take a risk. Courtesy rather than rudeness to the older driver should be a sign of manhood. It will pay the taxpayer, since older people driven off the roads may be driven into care.
What's that I hear you say?