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Published: Saturday, 12/27/2008

Retirees slow to pick up the cell phone

Once again, retirees find themselves on the short end of a developing technology.

In this case, however, inconvenience is forcing many of them to adapt and learn how to use a new device.

Once they learn how to use it, the seniors I know are seldom without it and can t believe they were so slow to embrace it.

Resistance to change and their insistence that it is unnecessary have kept them away.

In fact, those excuses could also be applied to the basic computer, whose users would feel positively deprived if one was not at hand. The growing list of users who can t do without personal computers now includes seniors who have mastered some of its intricacies.

But I m talking about the gizmo carried and used on a daily basis by probably the majority of Americans still under retirement age.

It s the ubiquitous cell phone.

The inconvenience of not having one of these small devices is painfully obvious when one of my senior pals at the mall food court has to make a phone call.

You see, despite all the efforts at the mall to make the multimillion-dollar expansion and food court a welcome place for shoppers, diners, coffee-drinkers and lounging seniors, the simple nicety of a nearby pay phone was left off the drawing boards.

A call this week to the mall office asked where a pay phone might be found. The reply was that they are available in the corridor at the center of the mall by the elevator to the offices upstairs, and at the far end of the Macy s and Dillard s wings.

None are anywhere near the food court.

A mall representative pointed out that the available pay phones are within walking distance from the food court.

This, however, isn t acceptable to a senior who uses a walker or limps slowly on an aging knee or an arthritic hip.

Now, back to seniors who are learning to adapt and use the new technology.

I am including myself in that category.

With a working knowledge of computers, I certainly don t consider myself to be road kill on the information superhighway. But my newspaper career in its final few decades never required me to be out of the office and readily in touch with my bosses, so I didn t need a cell phone.

Like a majority of my retired buddies, I reveled in the savings I enjoyed each month by not indulging in a cell phone.

Like many of these retirees, I convinced myself that there was no need.

Then, like my pals also did, I routinely worked in a few jabs at the rudeness of loud cell phone users who must think themselves of great importance when they talk loudly enough to attract attention from bystanders.

We laughingly pointed out the people who appeared to be talking to themselves while they walked, as we could barely make out the Bluetooth cell phone device growing out of one ear.

Somehow, that seemed to give us a sense of moral superiority, certainly of better etiquette than the youngsters. All the excuses, however, unsuccessfully masked our failure to keep up with the times as something done on purpose.

In hindsight, it now appears that for some seniors, including myself, our dismissal of cell phones was a combination of a slight fear of the unknown, downright cheapness, and a hint of laziness to learn something new.

A quick survey of several tables full of seniors at the mall food court showed that only a small minority had cell phones, and several of those phones were tucked away in the glove compartments of their cars.

Most of those seniors with cell phones got them from concerned adult children who wanted their parents to have this electronic lifeline in case of emergency.

Several of the seniors were not sure when they last charged their cell phone. A couple admitted that they could dial a number with their phone, or answer a call, but couldn t do any more than that.

Armed with the facts that senior citizens may not need or bother to learn much more about a cell phone than simply dialing a number, some companies are targeting this audience with phones geared for simplicity.

It was such a phone, put into my hands a few months ago by the folks at Verizon, which made my opinion of the unnecessary cell phone do a complete 180-degree turn.

The phone I was given for a trial is a basic model called the Coupe. It has standard features such as a speakerphone, voice-activated calling, text-messaging capability, a full menu of options, etc.

A couple of very basic, standard features, however, are designed especially with elderly users in mind. These include a dedicated 911 button, three ICE (In Case of Emergency) buttons, and large, easily read numbers.

Despite the full load of basic features, the phone isn t the least intimidating, since a senior can pick it up and easily do nothing more than dial a number. Sometimes with one button.

The built-in, more advanced stuff can be ignored.

Also, there is no camera, standard keyboard, or Internet connection to befuddle an inexperienced user.

Other phone companies have similar models available. This is all most retirees need and will use comfortably. Adult children, take note. If it s too complicated, it will be kept in a glove compartment and rarely used.

It also appears that phone companies are starting to pay attention to another need of seniors considering cell phones. That s the development of easy-to-understand, simple monthly rates for users who need a small number of minutes and resent having to buy more time than necessary.

By the way, the Verizon folks also gave me a hot, new model to use for a week. Its debut was widely reported in the media as innovative, exciting, and a technological marvel.

That is the modest description of the BlackBerry Storm Smartphone. It had all the features of the Coupe, plus many others.

The Storm links users to a 3G network for Internet access. I tried that feature several times in the mall food court, where my laptop computer always performed admirably with the free wi-fi. I found that waiting for Internet action with this phone was akin to watching paint dry.

In showing the Storm to several seniors, I watched their eyes glaze over as I merely described its capabilities.

Unless a retiree is still linked to his job, I can t see any reason for him to have so complicated a device.

My biggest complaint with the marvelous Storm?

By the time my week was up and I had to return it, I was still trying to decipher the instruction manual.



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