Tech for Seniors Must be Practical
A recent upgrade to his parents' home tech gave columnist John Caldwell a new perspective on A/V.
Comcast DVR
A simple DVR, such as the models offered through cable companies, can help seniors manage their daily routines.
April 11, 2007 by John Caldwell

Much has been written about the need for consumer electronics manufacturers to embrace the burgeoning senior citizen market. This last week gave me a deeper appreciation for just how vexing today’s tech world can be to seventy-somethings. 

My son Cameron’s spring break was last week. He wanted to get away for a few days and I needed a few days of R&R. Cam could hardly wait to see his cousins and other desert rat buds in and around Scottsdale, AZ. I was envisioning a few lazy days by the pool and even a round or two of golf. The desert in the spring is truly resplendent. While Cam executed his social game plan perfectly, I on the other hand wound up performing all manner of tech support upgrades for my parents and never did make it to the pool, much less the golf course. 

Let me back up a bit. My dad is a retired Navy carrier fighter pilot and aerospace engineer with a couple of graduate degrees. Pretty sharp guy technically you would think. But the very notion of upgrading his computer’s operating software or hooking up a DVD player to his HDTV completely stymies the guy. 

When I arrived at my folk’s home in Scottsdale, dad had a short list of home technology “spring cleaning” issues waiting for me. Evidently things had been festering for quite some time. 

Day one had me upgrading his anti-virus and MS Office software applications. Dad couldn’t figure out—or trust—the daily reminder he kept getting from his anti-virus software. He kept thinking it was some sort of annoying pop-up ad.

Next, I turned my attention to his antique computer monitor. Seems dad likes to monitor Arizona State University (ASU) sporting events via a program called Game Tracker. Once installed, Game Tracker assumes you have a 1080 x 768 monitor or better and reconfigures the PC’s settings such that all other Web pages and the desktop were large and unfamiliar looking to dad. He was sorta freaked out about it. So I upgraded his old 14-inch, 800 x 600 monitor with a new high-def 25-inch flat screen. Problem solved. Life is good. Err ... almost.

I wanted Mom and Dad to see Microsoft’s new Vista operating system. So we stopped by a local big box CE store. Problem is that Vista is a real code hog. It was going to eat up more memory than their aging PC could muster. In retrospect, I’m glad they didn’t have a more robust PC. Vista, as nice as it is, would have just confused the hell out of them. My folks, and I suspect most seventy-somethings, don’t like change for the most part, especially when it comes to home technology. They like things familiar and where they can count on them. The brain is wired like that. As we get older, we need structure and routine. Without structure we forget to take our meds or lose the car keys. One look at Vista and I knew they would be uncomfortable. All my folks really need a computer for is e-mail, write an occasional letter, see pictures of their grand kids, browse a few Web pages, and monitor ASU softball and baseball games. Windows 98 serves them well. At least for another year … assuming there will be some support for it out there somewhere. 

Later, I hooked up their six-month-old high-def big screen to the DVD/VHS combi-player that was collecting dust. The cable guys who had come out to install the cable box to the then-new set made a feeble attempt using a set of component cables hooked up to the player’s composite video outputs and digital audio output. Never mind that these cable geniuses hooked them up to the HDTV’s component video and analog audio inputs. Uff dah! The system had been hooked up wrong for so long, that when I popped a DVD into the player, dad asked me where those had come from. He’d forgotten he had a collection. 

But what I uncovered next about my parent’s luddite-like techo-habits really gave me pause. Seems that whenever I got my folks out of the house, Dad was always looking at his watch. He was concerned about getting home in time to watch a particular television show. “Ten minutes to Wapner” wasn’t too far from the truth.

On other occasions, while at home, mom often watched different TV shows in another room. After about the third or fourth incident like this, I asked if they had heard of a DVR. Their deer in the headlights look spoke volumes. “I’ll be right back” I said as I headed out the door. “I’ve got something that will change your lives …” 

I headed over to the local cable company’s office. I called them from the car on the way to find out that they had a DVR with an HD tuner that would add $8 a month to their bill. Sounds perfect. Within an hour I had the TiVo-like silver wonder box installed and ready for parental training. Oh this was going to be interesting.

While not having quite a TiVo or even Moxi-like interface that would have made it a breeze to teach them how to use their new DVR, I persevered none the less. After two days of hands-on training, my folks got the hang of the time-shifting device. Sure, it took them more time than most custom installers would have spent training them, but it was worth it. I could only surmise that ease of operation and the manifest benefits to their lifestyle had more than overcome any reticence towards another new home technology. 

Now they could watch reruns of favorites like “Jag” or new shows like “Criminal Minds” without having to plan their day around them. They were now free to enjoy their lives and spend more time visiting their grandkids or creating new and healthier routines, like walking around the block.

Last week, I learned that while familiarity may breed contempt when it comes to people, familiarity may breed contentment when it comes to home technology. Change to a senior’s home technology lifestyle is a tricky issue. Keep it simple and make it familiar. The benefits have to be pronounced and well appreciated. Training is a must. The simple addition of a DVR is a great life-style addition to anyone’s home A/V rig, but for seventy-somethings, the DVR may just turn out to be a terrific “health-style” addition as well. 

Good listening and viewing!

John CaldwellJohn Caldwell is a 28-year grizzled veteran of the A/V business
and co-founder of StJohn Group, Inc.

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John Caldwell - Contributing Writer, St John Group, Inc
Caldwell is a 28-year grizzled veteran of the A/V business and co-founder of St. John Group, Inc.

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