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Useful And Fantastic: Ageing Populations

Val Yule calls for more thought to be given to making life easier for older people.

With all the public hand-wringing about what a looming catastrophe to society the growing numbers of us helpless old people are going to be, there are short-sighted (sic) people in the business of making them more helpless. Short-sighted because one day they too may be older than they are today. It is a peculiar trend to make it harder for the ageing to avoid being a problem.

The ageing are handicapped by minor defects. Medicine and gadgetry do their best and most people of seventy-six today are livelier and healthier than their grandparents were at sixty. It is only that their eyes, ears, legs, reaction time, memory or bottoms are not quite as good as a young man’s. And the young men are making the running to make old people stumble more.

Official stumbling blocks should not be getting worse.
For example, the latest way my State’s public transport has found to spend profligately has been to replace every one of their nice big station names on railway platforms with little ones, little white letters on light blue backgrounds. Train-travellers with any degree of visual handicap cannot easily read these smaller names from a moving train in the daytime, certainly not at night. In the dark even people with normal vision may only be able to locate these signs by the larger white squares with numbers on that have been tacked on to every sign to tell you that it is platform 1 or 2, (at, no doubt, more cost.) The authorities’ excuse is that this ‘unifies the public transport system’, when blue signs tell you it is a railway, and orange or green so you know it is a bus or tram line. I would rather the system was unified by decent connections. They proudly say they got past the Discrimination and Disability Act for the visually impaired, but do not reveal how they did it. I can still read a book a night, but I have problems with these signs, especially when the announcements on the train are wrong. An otherwise amiable young transport politician admitted that others had lodged complaints too, but told me flatly, “You are wrong”.

Older people must use public transport when, responsibly, they give up driving. In my city, waiting for public transport was made harder for the elderly and frail by often removing comfortable seats and replacing them with metal bars of varying degrees of discomfort, so that people will not obscure the ads on the shelter. This does not matter in the city centre with its frequent transport, but in outlying areas, old people huddle on convex cold metal in shelters designed to display ads rather than shelter from the elements, to be objects of pity to car-travellers as they whiz past. I have been told that decent seating on station concourses is not possible because druggies would sleep on them. The private company also says it cannot do anything about improving seating because “We advise that, under our agreement with the State Government, (the private operator) is required to run the metropolitan train service within the confines of the current infrastructure.” There are still occasional bus or tram shelters to be found that are possibly on the heritage list, with their tiled roofs and woodwork, like decorative band-stands on the street. Preserve them – they are old too.

Public broadcasting is being made less accessible to the elderly. Many normal people find it hard to discriminate speech against background noise, as in parties and restaurants. With age this problem increases because we find it harder to hear the higher frequencies of voices. The public broadcaster’s listening audience is possibly 15% over the age of sixty, but it increasingly spends its scarce resources on backgrounding talks and even promotions and announcements with noises and music, usually inappropriate, including drums that clatter, clash, batter or thump as umelodiously as factory hammers. I can find no political reason why they should do this. Examples include disrupting a program on Quakers, those lovers of silence, with church organ music, one of their special dislikes.

Documentaries on concentration camp experiences, or the appalling tightrope of the Cold War years, have been given the treatment of musical entertainments, with violins or pan-pipes. I am told this sort of interference is to provide ambience, and emotional thingummy. Now the News is liable to background translated speech with voices in the original language, achieving, for the mildly deaf, confusion in both. Reportedly, a director of radio has said that radio talks are bat-shit. Hence the need for jazzing up, and turning everything into the Night Air, a specifically youth program. Complaints are usually batted off, usually with dignified silence, despite admissions that I am not the only complainer.

It’s not just the guvament. Commerce undercuts oldies’ participation in modern life. One specialty of Product Design is to make it hard to tell which way is ON or OFF. You cannot tell by looking, you have to remember, and this is getting harder for us. The award-winning (I bet) sleek designs of the new plasma screens and digital televisions achieve their streamlined look by reducing the buttons almost to dots, and the labels to tiny scratches. The remote-controls multiply and could send the collection of gadgets to Mars and back, but their rows of hieroglyphics confuse me about the directions really needed, for START, STOP and THIS IS THE CHANNEL OR GADGET THAT YOU WANT. The young men tell me just to keep trying all the buttons until one works for me. However, press the wrong button to change the volume, and the elderly may never find their station again, and all the array of remote controls cannot get them on to any channel lower than 256.

Printers have taken pride in designing fonts with great attention to clarity and legibility for fast reading – hence weighted letters, serifs, and black print on white paper. Now that graphic designers design on computers, this expertise is lost, for two reasons. One is that sales appeal and constant novelty matter more than user-appeal. Ten thousand new fonts cannot all be top legible. The other reason is that print on screen and on paper look different, but graphic designers do not realize this. The most readable fonts on electronic screens, with their background lighting, are unweighted sanserif; and text on screen looks great when it is white on black or has fancy backgrounds. Designers transfer unchanged what looks great on their screen on to print on paper – which is a different medium. Anyone with any degree of visual handicap can be slowed down trying to read in print blocks of text that have looked great on screen. I suspect that many others just skip it, including child learners. Oh, but it looks great, and sales go up, including for a dazzling-looking new science magazine that refuses so far to carry out experiments on the difference between its great sales appeal and its problematic reader appeal. A journal of remedial reading once put out an entire issue with white print on black background. Did – could - anyone read it?

The designers of the first computers and software took care to make everything on screen as legible and easy to access as the developing technology made possible. The print was clear, the windows had clear frames, and clear text labels accompanied icons which were also immediately recognizable as pictographs. I still use an old, old computer and old version of my word-processing program whenever I can, because my latest computer is a daily struggle with the unpredictable. I need the new machine for its spacious memory and Internet access, but I do not use most of the possibilities on the toolbars, partly because they mostly do things far beyond my needs for a simple work-horse, but also because for me most of the icons are smudgy, ambiguous, and swiping them with the cursor to reveal their text label is liable to result in something unexpected. I don’t need a computer that is like one of those overstocked ware-house barns. But gee, they do look stylish, trendy and minimalist. And so big. I feel I am trying to drive an SUV.

The elderly can be grumpy, can’t they! And some of us feel the cold more. Today’s fashions do not aid. They spurn cardigans, peelable ensembles, and thick suits, thus adding to global warming because space heating makes up for warm clothes. Yet what an expanding market waits neglected, not entirely cornered by the cosmetic surgeons. I wrote to our local Australian-Made fashion chain, suggesting they run a section or a store for ‘Golden Fashions’, or ‘Growing Old Disgracefully’, but I think they were stunned into silence.

Independence often needs continued ability to drive a car. The elderly are not the most accident-free on the roads; I think that a serious 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 amber lights or for sticking to the speed limits because their reaction times are a little slower. I have seen accidents in parking lots when a size-shrunk older person cannot see past a large Four-Wheel-Drive, and is hooted at from behind 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.

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