[Paleopsych] NYT: Not Just for Emergencies Anymore

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Fri Feb 4 14:42:47 UTC 2005

The New York Times > Technology > Circuits > Not Just for Emergencies Anymore


    LONG after cellphones became an annoyance in movie theaters and
    restaurants, the incessant ringing turned up at an unexpected place:
    the Holiday Park Senior Center in Wheaton, Md., near Washington.

    It started about a year ago, when musical performances and lectures
    began to be interrupted regularly. The problem got so bad that the 600
    people who come daily for various programs had to be reminded to turn
    off their phones.

    "Some doctor would be talking about a disease and a cellphone would
    start ringing," said Phil Smakula, a supervisor for the county's
    programs for the elderly and the center's former director. "Most of
    the time they weren't exactly urgent calls. They were making plans to
    go to the movies or have dinner with a neighbor."

    The cellphone, once viewed by older people solely as a device for use
    in emergencies, is becoming an everyday convenience. Encouraged by
    inexpensive calling plans, older Americans are using cellphones to
    call their grandchildren at college, or to set up a bridge game at
    their retirement community.

    "I resisted getting a cellphone for quite a while," said Millie
    Salwen, 78, who bought one two years ago when she lived in Manhattan
    and found it increasingly difficult to find a pay phone near Bryant
    Park, where she worked as a volunteer. "Now, I can't live without it."
    After a move to Lasell Village, a retirement community near Boston,
    Ms. Salwen continues to use the cellphone a few times a week. "It
    doesn't intimidate me anymore," she said.

    Half of Americans ages 65 to 74 own mobile phones, according to the
    Yankee Group, a technology research firm, as do 30 percent of those 75
    to 84. Four years ago, the firm estimates, only 15 percent of people
    over 65 were wireless customers. And older users are increasingly
    attracted to cellphones for general use, not merely safety, the firm

    The increase in cellphone use among older Americans is coming despite,
    not because of, the wireless industry. Carriers make little effort to
    appeal to older customers, directing most of their marketing efforts
    to younger people who are more likely to use (and pay for) extra
    features like text messaging and voice mail. Indeed, older consumers
    often complain that all those features - accessible on ever-smaller
    phones with tiny keys - leave them confused.

    AARP, the advocacy and lobbying group for older Americans, says
    cellphone service is the benefit most requested by its 35 million
    members. In response to complaints about poor service and hard-to-use
    phones, the organization is testing a program that will provide
    members with discounted calling plans and handsets from several
    carriers as well as materials about how to operate the devices.

    Linda Barrabee, a senior wireless analyst for the Yankee Group, said
    no carrier had taken the lead in marketing its services to older
    Americans, even though older customers represent one of the last
    remaining segments of the population where there is potential for
    subscriber growth. Nearly 80 percent of people 19 to 65 already own a

    In some ways, Ms. Larrabee said, older people are the more attractive
    customers, because they tend to be loyal to brands, use fewer minutes
    and require less time with customer service.

    None of the cellphone carriers make public their subscriber base by
    age group. But Mary Nell Westbrook, a spokeswoman for [1]Sprint PCS,
    called the elderly market "a very narrow segment." The company does
    not aim its advertising at older people, she said, because they tend
    to become customers through family calling plans, which come with
    several handsets and a bundle of free minutes for one price.
    [2]Sprint, Ms. Westbrook added, "targets youth and baby boomers, who
    are obvious users."

    [3]Verizon officials, too, say older people are mainly customers
    through family plans. Sometimes that "family" is simply a group of
    seniors. For example, Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon, said
    that his 67-year-old mother is on a family plan with a 71-year-old

    Most older people with mobile phones still carry them mainly for
    security purposes. Some have handsets, given away by local police
    departments, that work only to call 911.

    Others, like Thelma Leskowitz, have restricted calling plans that
    charge for every minute used.

    Mrs. Leskowitz, 79, who lives in Framingham, Mass., said she makes
    calls more frequently these days than when her son bought her the
    cellphone five years ago.

    "I never used it when I first got it," she said. Now, although she
    does not describe herself as an everyday user, she makes a call if she
    needs "to reach someone quickly," even if she's in the car, where she
    normally leaves her phone.

    "But I pull over," she quickly added. "I do not drive and talk."

    Mrs. Leskowitz said she would probably use her phone more often if she
    could find a cheap calling plan and better understand how the phone
    works. She recalled accidentally hanging up on her daughter-in-law
    once because she pressed the wrong button. "They're not the easiest
    things to figure out," she said.

    Plenty of other older customers agree. Myrtle Clark, 67, of New
    Braunfels, Tex., said that when she got her [4]Nokia phone a year ago
    the instruction manual included directions for several different
    models. "It wasn't helpful," Ms. Clark said. "It took me a day just to
    figure out what model I bought."

    Even frequent users say a mobile phone's keypad and screen are too
    small for older people, especially those who have poor eyesight or
    arthritis. Many older cellphone owners often learn only enough about
    the phone to make and receive calls, and rarely, if ever, use features
    like the phone book or text messaging.

    And do not even get them started on voice mail. Flossie Berger, 77, of
    Longboat Key, Fla., said she gave up on checking her voice mail soon
    after she got her mobile phone two years ago. "I would always forget
    the numbers to dial, and then I'd forget my password," she said. "Now
    people know not to leave a message."

    When Mrs. Berger visited New York recently, her granddaughter used her
    phone's calculator to figure out the tip at a restaurant. "She said I
    should learn how to use that, but I have no interest," Mrs. Berger
    said. "To me, it's just a phone."

    But to manufacturers and carriers, the handset has become much more
    than a phone. The trend now is to pack as many features as possible
    into a device that is getting smaller. In turn, the phones are
    becoming more complicated to use.

    Patricia Moore, a noted industrial designer and gerontologist,
    describes the design of cellphones as abysmal. For one thing, she
    said, every one works differently.

    To illustrate her point, when Dr. Moore gives a presentation she often
    asks her audience to turn on their cellphones and pass them to a
    neighboring person to make a call. "They have this frozen moment," she
    said. "They are looking for a prompt that is familiar to them, not one
    that is familiar to the manufacturer."

    Technology message boards at AARP's Web site ([5]www.aarp.org) and
    other sites for seniors are filled with complaints about cellphone
    service and the devices themselves. Many users want to know why
    manufacturers have not copied handsets sold in Asia that are easier to
    see and hear. (For example, the NS 1000, a basic cellphone with large
    keys manufactured by LG Electronics, is only available in Korea.)

    Such phones, though, are not likely to show up soon in the United
    States. Curtis Wick, director of the test and technical support
    engineering group for LG USA, said manufacturers in Asia usually sell
    handsets that are more advanced than those in the United States
    because users there were willing to sacrifice quality for the latest
    technology, and often bought their handsets directly from the

    By comparison, Mr. Wick said, American consumers want "all the bugs
    worked out first" and purchase their phones through carriers, who
    dictate the features they want in the handsets.

    "We don't get a lot of requests to make products that are easier for
    the elderly to use," he said.

    Eventually, Ms. Barrabee of the Yankee Group said, manufacturers will
    have to start paying attention to this demographic as today's baby
    boomers move into retirement. "They will have the same issues that
    seniors have now, and they will demand changes as longtime customers,"
    she said.

    But it is unclear whether cellphone use among older people would
    become more widespread if a special handset were offered. Like some
    younger users, many older cellphone customers blame the technology for
    the loss of civility in public life.

    "People speak on these things everywhere and anywhere as if they're in
    a private phone booth," Mrs. Leskowitz said. "I cannot bear these
    public conversations."

    Carrying a cellphone regularly can also require a change in habits.
    When Mrs. Berger first got her cellphone, she often left it at home.

    "Little good it would do me, sitting at home, if I had an emergency,"
    she said. But she has become used to bringing it with her. "I'm hooked
    on it," she said. "It makes me feel young."

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