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How to Make Home Entertainment More Accessible for the Elderly

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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.

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have you noticed how violent and pornagrahic television has gotten?  I have called Spectram and complained this morning.  My bill is $126 a month and I do not watch news, sports, cspan, pbs news, etc.  but cannot get any satisfaction due to them not scheduling programs but  as they say they contract the network, not what is on the programs....It is an insult to me to paying for this style of "entertainment ". 

is there a committee that oversees or monitors such disgraceful programing....

tv has being an enjoyable "home companion " thru the years, learning instrument, entertaining tool...but it is coming clear, I do not need this corruption in my life.

I agree with Mark Daneen that there are many more issues than just needing closer/clearer sound and pictures. Even cell phones have been impossible for my parents to master. And I"m not talking smart phones...just the basic type.

That said, an even more important issue for me is that I want to get my folks AWAY from the tv set. I've noticed that Dad forgets to do things, not because of his memory, but because he walks through a room that has a tv set on, and he gets distracted. Very little gets done at their house. I've quit my job and left my house vacant in another state to come help them, but, after several months of doing all their maintenance, yard work, opening food cartons and containers, and doing their laundry, I'm weary of the constant sound of tv's blaring at full volume day and night in every room. I'm also concerned that they're not being intellectually challenged in any way, since the shows they watch are old 1940's westerns,1970's cop shows and Family Feud. If there's a malfunction in the house, and I need them to call someone, they'll "get to it" because the tv watching has become more important. They're SO worried about missing a show that I've been seeing evidence of leaks in the ceiling but they won't let me call anyone and wont' call anyone themselves until "such and such show" is over. But then, there's another show they HAVE to watch, then it's time to go to the bathroom, then they've fallen asleep, then they get up and have to get dressed for church....and so on. 

LET YOUR PARENTS ENJOY THE LITTLE TIME THEY HAVE LEFT!  GOOD GRIEF, ANNA!  IF TV IS WHAT THEY LIKE, SO, BE IT.  STAY AWAY IF IT BOTHERS YOU.  THAT'S WHAT MY SON DOES & i HAVE NO ONE ELSE, BUT HE DOESN'T CARE WHETHER I AM ABLE TO DO THINGS!  HE LIVES ONLY 3 MILES AWAY & DOESN'T CARE IF I DO ANYTHING, 'CAUSE IF i CAN'T, HE WON'T EITHER!!  i CAN'T GET ON A STOOL TO CHANGE THE BATTERY IN MY SMOKE DETECTOR OR CHANGE A LIGHT BULB WAY UP HIGH.....JUST LITTLE THINGS & IT'S, TOO, MUCH FOR HIM TO STOP OVER.  THAT'S THE WAY IT IS WITH MANY ADULT KIDS....THEY RESENT DOING, EVEN, THE LITTLEST THINGS FOR THEIR ELDERLY PARENTS!  HURRY UP & DIE, SO, i CAN INHERIT YOUR HOUSE, ETC.

I have been looking for elderly compatable items for a while now.  I have found out a few things about these products.  They seem to assume that seniors can either see or hear but not have problems with both.  They assume seniors have great memories as stated previously that it is the complexity of the remotes that cause problems the most.  They need simple controls so they are easy to use.  One solution is that insetead of using the remote to switch the source is to use a switching box.  I would love to find one with tactile feedback like a physical slide switch so it can be determined by touch the input selected but so far what I have found is one with a pushbuton for A-B but at least it has LED indicators.  I think there is a huge market out there for seniors that need simple functions with tactile feedback.  My Aunt needs a microwave but cannot see the flush buttons or the LED display.  I have found in the past microwaves with dials that I could put high contrast markers on so she could use it but those are disapearing and In fact I need one for her now but am having a hard time trying to find one.  Seniors seem to be forgoton in society.  For a society that claims to be more caring and sensitive they are forgoton and instead of trying to keep seniors independent, as they want to be be like my Aunt, that wants to stay in her home that she and her husband lived for 40 years, who has passed away already,

i agree!  we seniors have been forgotten  in all areas & especially by our govts. from local to federal.....especially, local....keep raising taxes & coming up with new projects not taking into account that most of us live on very little money!  They offer no help, whatsoever.  I need a TV 'cause mine went out without any warning.  Best Buy wants as much to hook up one of these new flat screens as the TV cost.  I don't need any frills....just a TV!!  And $149 and up is ridiculous, just to set it up...no wall mount...plug it in, add a couple cables, tweak a few things & it's done.  My son could do it, but he only has time to borrow wht little money I have or to borrow my car for weks when his goes down!  Do I complain to him....no I do not.  I know better!  We seniors are the forgotten ones in this country!

Sure, the picture is great, but that totally misses the problem. TVs are now so complicated with hundreds of menus and settings that old people will never understand, that they bollux up the TV within hours of watching, and then have to call in a young person to "Fix the TV." Anyone with a parent over 75 knows what this is about. They will grab the remote and begin pressing buttons expecting things to happen instantly. When they don't, the press more buttons. Before long, they press the "SOURCE" button and the picture is gone. Unless and until someone makes a TV with a LOCKDOWN feature, old people are prevented from enjoying TV independently. 

New simple remotes? Nope, they don't work. The response of the buttons is far slower than the manufacturer's remote, so old people will keep pressing buttons until that simple remote becomes totally bolluxed. I've tried every one of the simple remotes. It's not the solution. 

The biggest problem is this: To justify their existence, programmers continually think of "new adjustments and menus" as a way of saying they have "more" than their competitor. All these features are useless playthings that no one in their right mind eve cares about. People what channel, loudness and on and off. Beyond that, you are messing with amusing toys with no  purpose. 

Well said! There are cell phones that have the elderly in mind... I wish TV manufacturers would provide an "elder friendly" remote.  On/off ... volume... And easy close captioning. That is it. 

I agree. Using the remote is the most challenging thing. Universal remotes are a bad idea for people who get confused. They need separate remotes for separate systems, clearly labeled. My mother is in her 90s. She doesn't watch videos or stream movies. She needs on/off, change channels, and change volume. When we went from solid state TVs that came on instantly to digital that takes a few moments to load up, it was not an improvement for the elderly.

Talk about complete information! This is great! Would you have any tips for placing in-ceiling speakers for a maximise audio quality experience? I've looking it up but couldn't find a resource. I'm eyeing this Spectrum M6 for our living room, it looks great! Hope I can get more insights.

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