Market indifference—the mobility gap: You've seen the driver—too short to see over the wheel, too timid to change lanes safely, maybe taking multiple chronic disease medications—and still driving. In 15 years, one of five drivers will be 65 or older. "The result is a 'mobility gap,'" according to Joseph Coughlin, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, which develops technologies aimed at keeping older people active. Cars can be made smarter, he says, to help save us. But as a society and marketplace, what are the solutions for today's older driver—let's say just those four million people above the age of 80? They can call the bus, take the RIDE, or ask a friend, but as the current scenario stands, to stop driving is, as Coughlin says, to be on "house arrest." Who would want to tell seniors to stop driving with this patchwork of transportation alternatives, especially in the suburbs, where most live?
Market indifference—the cell phone gap: Forty-two percent of those age 65+ are without a cell phone. Hmm, why do you suppose that is? Do you think it's just because older adults see no purpose in them? Or do they conclude that devices that generally have small screens, small buttons, poorly separated controls, and a joke of a keyboard for texting aren't worth the trouble? (And I haven't even started in on smart phones.) The itsy-bitsy keys on my BlackBerry Curve are a hoot—and I have small hands, steady fingers, and can touch type—but I have yet to get a complete sentence right the first time. Watching iPhone users flip around their screens searching in vain for punctuation, no wonder iPhone messages are so, shall we say, cryptic? Why would people with arthritic hands or less-than-perfect vision want to bother? So they could tweet or read spam with better backlighting? Luckily, only 4% of the over-65 crowd have one —and that number will not move much until vendors care more.
Market indifference—the traveler gap: That brings me to a traveler's rant about hotel tubs. Clearly, hotel chains expect that the average traveler is young, nimble-footed, sharp-eyed, and not at all worried about falling, or there would a well-placed grab bar in that extra-slippery tub of the Hyatt I was just in. Or the grab bar in the Marriott bathroom would have been placed in the middle of the glasslike tub, where it could be reached when a not-so-fleet-footed person slipped. Instead, it is inaccessible at the far end of the tub. I give Hyatt credit, though: Someone must have fallen and sued them—there was a rolled up bath mat under the sink, and Marriott staff have told me that if I like, I can have a permanent request for a mat in my profile. After enduring a near-humiliating "security theater" experience at the airport, being jammed into sardine seats on the plane, and risking a life in the hotel tub, why would anyone at the older end of the 65+ population travel unless they had to for holidays—when 22 passengers on one flight required wheel chairs (no kidding) last year.
Market indifference—the packaging gap: Finally, who in the marketplace cares about the near-unbelievable inaccessibility of packaged goods? These include unyielding plastic-wrapped bottle tops, hack-sawed clamshell packaging of electronic goods, not-so-easy-open vacuum-sealed jars, and packaged shipments that require a surgeon to open the so-secure taped box.
What we buy and pay money for when we're feisty and mobile will eventually become the obstacle course of our later lives. Let's remind everyone who markets to us (hotel, car, airline, supermarket) that these experiences designed by the young for the young will dwindle in appeal as the not-so-young become older. If all baby boomers made a fuss to each and every marketer whose product or service is dauntingly difficult to access, and if all towns had advocates trying to humanize transportation and other services, how livable and civilized life could be, regardless of age.
By Laurie Orlov
Aging in Place Technology Watch Blog
[First posted November 10, 2010, at Laurie's Aging in Place Technology Watch Web site.]