How to Make Home Entertainment More Accessible for the Elderly


Eyesight and hearing can deteriorate as people age, yet watching TV and reading are activities that never grow old. If you assist parents or grandparents with technology in their homes, you can help them choose appropriate products, then follow up by adjusting the equipment for optimal usability. A little hand-holding can go a long way to improving their lives.

Since sitting in front of a television set can dominate some senior citizens’ routines, the visual quality of their entertainment can be significantly improved by simply replacing the small, fuzzy picture they watch with a new TV. Why condemn older folks to being glued to an inferior tube when they could be enjoying Full HD on a dramatically larger screen that also happens to be a lot less heavy to move?

Keep in mind that early-adopter expense and a dearth of high-def content are no longer issues. When High-Definition broadcasting began with little to show in late 1998, HDTV sets were priced near $10,000; today, with the majority of TV programs made for HD, high-def sets with midsize screens can be had for $500 or $600.

Surely, switching to an HDTV set doesn’t substitute for putting on eyeglasses, but you have to admit that deciphering details in a picture on a 42-inch or larger TV with a resolution of more than two million (1920 x 1080) pixels has to be easier than on a 27-inch TV with low resolution. A large-screen HDTV effectively magnifies images and sharpens details at the same time. And since most new TV programs are now made for a widescreen (16:9) aspect ratio, those watching on a conventional (4:3) TV may be put off by a picture that is even smaller than the usable area of the TV screen on account of letterboxing.  Just as unappealing is the alternative: cropping out a portion of the original picture so that what remains fills the full screen. Excessive letterboxing, picture cropping and pan-and-scan are compromises that mainly belong to the era of 4:3 analog TV sets.

Letterboxing (left) and Cropping (right)

The Heightened “Readability” of HDTVs

Additionally, if a viewer’s eyesight is adequate but he or she can’t hear as well as they once did, the TV’s closed captioning can be turned on at anytime. On a big-screen TV, the text size will be proportionally larger compared to the same words on a conventional TV. Since the characters will be crisper in high def, too, it’s a given that captions on an HDTV set are eminently more readable. Some TV models, cable or satellite receivers and DVRs enable you to adjust the fonts and foreground and background colors, too.

The most dependable English subtitles are produced for DVD and Blu-ray movies. When a film’s theatrical aspect ratio is wider than 16:9, some letterboxing may be used on the home video version to preserve the director’s vision.  (Letterboxing is less noticeable on a large widescreen TV than say, a 21-inch 4:3 TV.) The resulting space beneath the image provides an excellent canvas for subtitles: white or yellow lettering on a black background for high-contrast readability and the neatness of not covering any portion of the picture. Both the hearing-impaired and those versed in a foreign language benefit greatly from the usability of wide-screen subtitles.

Harness the Sound

You’d think that adding an external sound system would be lost on a hearing-impaired listener. But that’s not necessarily so. First, an outboard sound system can improve the clarity of dialog and add the experience of directionality. Many HDTV programs are delivered with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, which means that sound effects can be heard from discrete speakers. The “.1” is the subwoofer track, which besides being used to create rumbling noise, explosions and booms, enhances bass and percussion in music. Even people with some hearing loss can generally appreciate low-frequency effects.

There are plenty of 5.1-encoded programs to go around in network prime time. If someone you know watches any of the CSI series, for instance, without surround sound, they’re missing half the fun. At the very least, you should turn on the virtual surround sound that the TV may be capable of producing from its two internal speakers.

Add Headphones

Even without an outboard receiver, there are audio enhancements that an elderly listener or spouse may be able to benefit from which are found on the TV itself. Some TVs, for example, contain a headphone jack. Though the jack is more likely found on smaller TVs, a few midsize models offer it. Plugging in headphones will cut off sound from the TV speakers. The person wearing the phones can then adjust the volume to their personal comfort level without disturbing others. Also, if there is ambient noise in the room, headphones will help block extraneous sounds. Headphones are a great way to maintain civility when half of a couple wants to sleep but the other wants to stay up and watch TV. Keep in mind that the cable on typical headphones is only about four to six feet long, so you’ll want to get an audio extension cable to make wearing and watching practical from a decent distance.

Wireless headphones solve the problem of making you feel like you’re on a leash. Depending on the model, they can connect to a stereo or digital output on the TV or receiver.  Some require line-of-sight to the transmitter while others can pick up the signal in another room. (For the latter type, the wearer can take the soundtrack with them to the bathroom or kitchen.)  The transmitter end must be plugged into a power outlet, while the headphones typically embed a rechargeable battery. So, the user must remember to periodically recharge or replace the headphones' batteries.

Big-Button Remotes

It’s unlikely that the remote control packed with the TV or cable box was designed for someone who regularly uses a magnifying glass to read small print—the size of labels on the remote’s buttons. So, a welcome accessory may be a big button universal remote with large numbers and icons. These types of remotes are inexpensive; they’re useful for basic functions like turning the TV on and off, changing channels and adjusting the volume. However, users will still want to keep the original remote handy for specialized functions like changing the input on the TV from cable box to DVD player, for example.

eBooks and Tablets

If all this talk about television hardware leaves you or the person you’re helping cold, and either of you would rather curl up with a good softcover, consider the plight of those who have moved from paperbacks to hardcovers to large print editions in order to better see the words. Electronic books and the related tablet category have a built-in advantage to print: the type can be enlarged on the fly. Suddenly, if the words in the digital edition are too small, you can enlarge the type with the press of a button. With hundreds of thousands of books and periodicals available from online libraries, reading choices abound.

Alternatively, books on CD or downloadable audio books are available when reading print at any size is no longer feasible. CDs play in dedicated CD players, certain clock radios, computers and DVD or Blu-ray players. Most ebooks and tablets contain headphone jacks for listening to digital audio files. All portable media players are compatible with MP3 audio files and some can play Audible files, a proprietary format preferred by some publishers.

Enlarge the Computer Screen

By the way, plenty of senior citizens use their computers daily. Two things that can improve their lives immediately are a faster connection and a bigger screen. If they’re still using dial-up where broadband access is available, you may want to explain why the extra cost is worth it and help them switch. Also, if someone you know is still using a desktop computer with a 17-inch or smaller monitor, you may want to help them move to a 23-inch or larger display. Remind them that they’re not replacing the computer—just the display. The payoff is being able to see more of a Web page at once, with larger text and graphics.

Finally, if someone wants to enlarge the text from an actual book, there are specialized scanners available that they can attach to their computers, which will scan pages and render them in larger type.