Tom Gutteridge: Newfangled technology difficult for the elderly

Tom Gutteridge finds out the hard way how new technology can baffle those in their senior years

An elderly person surfing the net
An elderly person surfing the net

I had my first senior moment this morning. It was very embarrassing.

I was in Waitrose, where I love using the self-scanner handset they give you so you don’t have to queue at the checkout – you just scan all the items as you shop, then swipe your credit card and walk away with bulging bags and a sense of superiority.

Except that today, when I inserted my credit card in the slot, the bill came to just £6.75. Considering my laden basket included a whole shoulder of lamb, I realised I must have absent-mindedly bagged half a grocery list without scanning.

I immediately felt both guilty and stupid. Guilty, because if I’d left the store I would have been shoplifting, and stupid because I must have been so engrossed in trying to remember what I needed to buy, I completely forgot to actually buy them.

So I asked an assistant to rescue me. She was very patient and, speaking slowly as if to a geriatric, politely asked me which item I had forgotten to scan.

“Erm, almost all of them,” I said, blushing the colour of the stolen sweet potatoes lying on top of the lamb.

So she extricated my credit card and showed me how to start again. £50 later, I was ready to pay. But then I couldn’t find my credit card.

I hadn’t moved, but the card was nowhere to be found.

I summoned the assistant again. Yes, she remembered my taking the card out of the slot; no, she couldn’t recall what I had done with it.

So for the next 20 minutes, we searched all my bags and scoured the floor.

While I emptied my pockets, she dismantled the scanning machine until it lay in pieces around us.

Behind me, the queue of customers wanting to use the speedy checkout grew fractious. I tried to hunch up and look 80, to justify my ineptitude.

But the card never showed up. It remains a grey-haired mystery.

But it got me thinking of just how hard new technology is for the elderly.

I may have iPads and smartphones and all sorts of gizmos, I even own a digital agency, but I can’t say I really understand much more about computers than Izzy, who’s only four.

So I feel really sorry for the genuinely old. People in their 90s, like Mum.

She won’t use an ATM to get cash, for she only likes dealing with real humans, so the concept of self-scanning checkouts is completely alien to her.

I gave her a computer several years ago and patiently taught her how to access her emails. But every time I go to her house, which is at least once a week, the thing lies unopened.

“I just don’t like messing with electricity, dear,” she explains. So I sit down and teach her all over again. I’ve made the cursor as big as a house, but still she loses it down the side of the screen.

“Oh no, I’ve lost the thingy again,” she says, ringing me in a panic.

Last week she telephoned me in the car while I was on the M25 to announce that she’d finally read all 3,000 spam emails that were in her in-box, but now there was a “coloured whirligig thing” in the middle of the screen and would I please pop round to make it go away.

I really do sympathise. All new technology is actually designed without any real intuition at all. My Mum just needs a computer with three buttons on it: Email, The National Gallery, and The Weather. That would do her very nicely, thank you. She would no more use internet banking than put quinoa in her shopping trolley.

There’s a real fortune to be made out of computers for the elderly, to empower a whole generation with a fear of technology. Machines with great big buttons and a label saying: Don’t worry if you press the wrong one.

Meanwhile, Waitrose should have a table by the checkout with an enormous sign saying “Put your credit card here when you take it out of the slot”. Just for me.

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