[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
By JEFFREY SELINGO
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 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.
Sprint, Ms. Westbrook added, "targets youth and baby boomers, who
are obvious users."
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 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 (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,"
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
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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