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Are we Cord Cutting TV Away from Seniors with Dementia?

Updated: May 2, 2022

Cord cutting innovations such as Hulu, Netflix, Roku, Sling TV and Amazon have made television watching simpler and cheaper–for most people. For senior citizens, especially those suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and MCI, these new ways of watching TV are leading to confusion with their new paradigm in navigation and operation. With cable television getting less and less common and more expensive, these seniors are running out of options.

I experienced this first hand with my mother in law.  At 85 and suffering from dementia, she watches only about 2-3 cable channels. Nevertheless, she was paying about $100/month for cable television. I thought this was excessive for the value she was getting, so I invested in a Roku as a way to help her save money. Almost immediately after setting up the Roku, I realized that she was not going to be able to use it and within days I took out the Roku, re-installed cable and she is back to her $75- $100/month bills.

Instead of a familiar “instant on” experience whereby pushing a button leads to an immediate watching experience (and on the last channel viewed Roku (and from my experience all cord cutting solutions) present the user with a menu. From there, you need to navigate to your profile, then your genre, then your show. This (understandably) confused my mother-in-law greatly, and proved too great a barrier to overcome. After decades of “push button = watch TV” there was just no way I was going to teach her to use the remote to navigate through endless menus. For someone suffering from dementia it’s not a matter of education- it’s a cognitive impossibility.  I had been through a similar challenge with my mother in law and other technologies and that led me to create RecallCue, a connected dementia day clock, but I was not going to re-create TV.

This experience got me thinking. Seniors represent a huge portion of the television industry’s target group. According to The Washington Post, “Audiences for the major broadcast network shows are much older and aging even faster, with a median age of 53.9 years old, up 7 percent from four years ago.” And yet, there are very few devices in place to facilitate the cord cutting experience for seniors.

Younger users can adapt to quickly changing interfaces and remotes, but older users are not going to be comfortable memorizing new configurations and navigations. These changes on how to operate a TV may seem small, but they are enough to make a senior citizen struggle and for seniors with dementia or other memory impairment they are absolute “show stoppers”.

Many senior citizens are unable to easily leave their homes, and rely on television to access the weather, stay on top of the news, and be alerted of any emergencies. Televisions often serve as the primary or only entertainment elderly citizens have in their home. Senior citizens need TV, and cord cutting trends are taking it away from them.

Cable companies, as well as new TV tools like Roku and Amazon Fire Stick need to be aware of the needs of their senior users so that they can make the necessary adaptations. These changes are relatively easy to implement, and I believe that they would increase the consumer base of these new technologies tremendously by including senior friendly options to their offering. Something as easy as a “traditional mode” would make a huge difference in the ease of use for someone who has spent 30 years watching TV a certain way.

  1. The on button should turn the TV on- This might sound ridiculous, but more often than not, these days there is not one simple on button that turns the television on to an actual TV channel. Whether it’s Netflix or traditional cable, elderly users need to be able to turn on the big red button and see the TV show or channel they were watching last, otherwise, many will not know how to proceed. This is how TV worked for 50 years, and it’s extremely confusing to change it.

  2. Channel surfing – users should not be required to stop/pause a program, exit, go back several times to a main menu and navigate a never-ending list of programs to change the channel. Providers should allow for a  familiar up and down arrow button to move ahead or back in the channel list.

  3. Cheaper options from traditional cable– Cable companies should offer minimalist packages with only the channels needed and reduce the price of the packages. This has long been a complaint against the cable companies and the single biggest contribution to the cord-cutting phenomenon. Seniors who are unable to use newer pay by channel cord cutting technologies are hit the hardest and have no option other than shelling out for huge cable bills.

  4. Intuitive, simple remotes– To their credit the remotes provided by Roku and Amazon are much more minimalist then those of the cable companies. Unfortunately, the layouts and options are synced with the new menu/profile options on the devices. These companies should support a remote control layout that is familiar and intuitive with On/Off, Channel Up/ Channel Down and Volume controls.

When it comes to reaching an elderly audience, the key is to simplify and keep things traditional. Innovation is great, but it’s not always great for everyone. Cord cutting companies are in a unique position to help the senior population – especially those suffering from dementia. By introducing a “simple” mode to their products that mimics the TV experience seniors are used to, these companies will go a long way to bringing affordable ad manageable TV entertainment to this population

UPDATE: May 2nd, 2022

This article has seen some great traction since I first wrote it. Honestly, I was surprised by the level of interest and as an entrepreneur it made me realize the need and opportunity in this space. I recently was introduced to a great company who is tackling this need head on - specifically for the population living with dementia. Zinnia TV has released a library of engaging videos that are in short form content and include very immersive images and sound tracks. The content is available on their own platform as well as on SaltboxTV - another great resource for those looking for content for the aging.

There are certainly still issues that need to be addressed but it's great to see that TV is on the radar and solutions being developed for the aging communities.


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