Grandma and the TV remote: Can this problem be solved?

When Aelaina Sellers'  mother moved into the daughter's University City home a few years ago, Sellers learned her mother was flummoxed by a gadget  many of us take for granted: the TV remote.   

Her mother, who now has moderate dementia at only 66, was confused that the remote had two power buttons, one that said "all on" and one that said "TV."  She would press the wrong button.  Things would go awry.  She'd start pressing more buttons on the remote and then the TV itself.  Eventually, Sellers or her husband would have to come to the rescue.   

Sellers tried labeling the remote. She taped over buttons her mother shouldn't push.  "She took the label off, and she pushed it anyway," Sellers said.

This mattered because her mother watches a lot of TV.  "It's basically her occupation right now,"  Sellers said.  "It's a big deal."  Also, "she doesn't want to rely on someone to figure out how to turn it on."

Plenty of younger people have trouble with remotes, too, but the complex devices can be particularly challenging for those who never embraced computers  or have cognitive or physical impairment.  The result for many children and grandchildren is frequent calls and frustrating tech-support visits. Barry Jacobs, a Delaware County psychologist who specializes in caregiving issues, responded to many calls from his mother before she moved to a nursing home. "I dealt a lot with the phone and with remote controls and with her calling Comcast all the time," he said.  He'd find her watching an infomercial or college football when he visited because she had given up trying to find what she wanted,  

Tina Wilhelmsen, executive director of Daylesford Crossing, an assisted-living facility in Paoli, said residents often think their cable is broken after they've pushed wrong buttons.  "They can't get themselves back," she said.  "They just don't know what to do.  It's a different language for them."   

For many older people, TV is their company, their connection to an outside world that may be harder to visit than it used to be. Shouldn't it be easier to use?

The good news is that consumer products manufacturers are starting to pay more attention to the tech needs of the vast aging population.  There is tremendous interest in products that will help older adults stay in their homes longer, such things as safety sensors, new ways of communicating with distant relatives and medical providers, better ways to monitor medication use. But making it easier for the elderly to watch TV  has not been a high priority, said industrial designers who focus on aging.

"The whole arena is ready for disruption," said Dan Formosa, a New York product designer and proponent of designs that focus on users' needs and abilities.

Jody Holtzman, senior vice president of market innovation for AARP, uses remotes in talks about the organization's push for universal design or design for all.  The idea is that well-designed products that work for older or disabled people will also work for children and everybody in between. The iPad, he said,  is an example of design for all. "Your TV remote is design for none."

Some companies have created simpler remotes or products that alter the complicated ones, but they may not work with every pay-TV provider. There are also bigger remotes with bigger buttons for those with vision problems.  They're still complicated. Many experts believe that voice activation will finally make it easier for older adults — and everyone else — to turn on a television and choose a channel. Comcast already has a voice-activated remote.  Some new TVs also offer the technology.  

"Voice control, I think is going to be the big answer," said Robin Raskin, a former journalist who founded Living in Digital Times, which produces tech events. "It's not quite there yet."   

Jason Karlawish, a physician who co-directs the Penn Memory Center, asks about technology use when he evaluates patients.  Trouble using remotes, especially in people who could do it before, is an early sign of dementia, he said.  It might also reflect normal age-related changes or even the side-effects of a new medication. "It's a very sensitive detector of cognitive change," he added.

As we age, we rely more on accumulated facts and less on our ability to analyze new information, Karlawish said.  Elders are at a disadvantage because  their exposure to advanced technology came later in life.

That said, Karlawish, who rarely watches television, said remotes, with their tiny buttons and fonts, are not age-friendly.  "They're not compatible with humans over the age of 25," he said.

Young tech designers might find it hard to believe, but people now in their 80s started life without televisions, let alone cellphones and computers. About 70 years ago, there were only 6,000 televisions in this country.  In the early days, you walked up to the TV and turned it on. In the 1960s, almost everything people watched was on only three networks.

Mike Glaser, program director of product design at Drexel University, says many older people get into trouble with remotes because their "mental map" of how TV works dates to the days when shows came through the air directly to your set.  They don't grasp the importance of the set-top cable box.  Glaser and his wife struggled with this issue with her mother.  "Her mapping is wrong," Glaser said.  No matter what kind of remote they tried with her, "she kept trying to use it the way our systems used to be.  At a certain point, she stopped being able to adapt.  The system is really complex now."   Eventually, his wife reprogrammed a simple remote specifically for her mother's needs.

You know an industry has a problem when people start selling ways to cover up problematic buttons, but that's just what Button Blocker does.  Jack McDaniel, whose company does injection molding, got the idea after his barber, Anthony Paravano, complained about frequent trips to help his confused sister-in-law.  The Worcester, Mass., men sell the $10 covers for Comcast, Charter, and DirecTV remotes. McDaniel said he's heard story after story from frustrated adult children. One put Krazy Glue on his mother's on-off button and told her to leave the TV on all the time. Please, just mute it at night, he begged.

Paravano said the calls for help stopped after he put on a blocker on his sister-in-law's remote.  "At the beginning, she was very defensive about it," he said, "but now she loves it."

David Pitkow, a California businessman, took a different tack after seeing his father, a former lawyer, struggle with the remote. "He wanted to watch one channel, which was the Golf Channel, and he couldn't get there," said Pitkow, who grew up in Bala Cynwyd.  He developed the six-button, $30 Flipper remote. It navigates to channels only with arrows.  It has bright colors, big buttons and full-word labels. It can be programmed with favorite channels so Mom or Dad don't have to scroll between channel 3 and channel 100.  It's compatible with many cable providers, including Comcast. Pitkow's father died of a stroke before he could test it.

Sage Senior Living, which owns Daylesford Crossing, gives Flipper remotes to residents who need simpler devices. Kati Cohn, regional director of sales and marketing, said Flippers have reduced distress calls and make residents feel more independent. 

Tom Wlodkowski, who is blind, is Comcast's vice president of accessibility.  He thinks there is a  "lot of overlap" between people with disabilities and older customers, although elders are not eager to see it that way.  The company conducted focus groups with older people, who initially avoided  large-button remotes.   Afterward,  Wlodkowski said, participants asked quietly, "How do I get one of those?"

Comcast now offers a voice-activated remote with its X1 system, a technology that Wlodkowski thinks seniors will embrace in the future.    

Viewed in Comcast's sleek accessibility lab, the system is a marvel.  You can say "CNN" or "The Apprentice" and get your show in an instant.  If it's not on now, the TV will tell you when it will be. If you can't remember the name of a movie, such as Sudden Impact, you can say "Make my day" or "Clint Eastwood," and the system may find it for you.  To watch it, though, you have to navigate with arrows and the OK button.  Plus, you have to get Comcast's internet service for it to work.

Kathy Bates, activities director for Neshaminy Manor Long Term Care Facility in Warrington, loved the idea when her daughter, who works for Comcast, told her about it.  The facility put the new system in its common areas.  The staff loves it, Bates said. One resident, though, thought it was ridiculous to talk to the television and has refused to try.  Others have adapted.

A recent demonstration of the system with residents revealed why it can be hard to design for older adults who need assistance. Witnesses swore that three residents were using the remote easily before an Inquirer reporter and photographer arrived.  The addition of a little stress, though, threw them off kilter.  A user has to press hard on a small blue button labeled with the icon of a microphone, wait for the word "listening" to appear on the screen, hold the button while speaking clearly and loudly and then quit holding the button. Don Crohe, 70, president of the resident council, found that the button was too small for his thumb and has to use another finger.  Sophie Zubyk, 94, wanted to watch Live! with Kelly, but the system couldn't find it when she asked for "the Kelly show."  Joan Dunsavage, 80, asked for The Chew, but got "shoe."  Eventually, they got it to work.     

There are, of course, simpler hacks.  Some people use bright nail polish to highlight key buttons.  They tape over the troublesome buttons and use markers to point out the good ones.  Some suggest photocopying the remote and writing simple instructions on the copy, said Krista McKay, director of programs and services for the Alzheimer's Association Delaware Valley Chapter. Caregivers can take a copy home so they can give more detailed help by phone.  

Asked what he thinks the best solution currently available is, Holtzman said, "a grandchild."

Sellers recently left her job and is available more now to help her mother.  "I am the remote control," she said.

If you've found a way to help a tech-challenged friend or relative use his or her TV remote, let us know what worked.  Send descriptions and pictures to sburling@phillynews.com