Michael Chotiner

As a group, seniors tend to be extremely diverse in their media tastes. Few patterns can be discerned regarding preferred content by gender, age or socio-economic status. But one media consumption issue that seniors seem to have is difficulty programming and using the necessary remote controls. While it seems like a trivial problem, remote controls that are tough to use and puzzling to program are a major hindrance to seniors’ ability to independently access their preferred media. But with some advances in smart technology, it’s easier than ever to find the right remote control solution.

Why It Matters

Being actively involved in media consumption is an important part of seniors’ lives. Recent studies have supported the fact that music, television and movies are key components to their well-being. In an article titled “Lifeline or Leisure? TV’s Role in the Lives of the Elderly,” media researcher Kathaleen Reid notes, “TV is an important window to the world and a basis for shared experience for seniors…We found that the primary gratifications the aging audience sought from media, including TV, were a sense of being more involved in the world, entertainment, acquiring information and passing time.”

Additionally, music presents an influential role in keeping elders sharp. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America asserts, “Music has power—especially for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias…When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements.”

Those with access to a television monitor, cable box, CD or DVD player, Roku box, Amazon Fire TV Stick and digital video recorder (DVR) may need to master the functions of as many as five or six different remotes. A lack of standardization in remote control layouts; small, hard-to-read, hard-to-push buttons; and the increasing complexity of options can exacerbate seniors’ typical disabilities, including failing eyesight, weakening hand strength and difficulty learning and remembering new routines. This means that seniors are likely to have a harder time accessing the media they want, when they want it.

Choosing better remote control options

Mobile apps that control Wi-Fi-connected smart TVs and streaming services are some of the easiest solutions because they require less programming and physical manipulation. Once downloaded and activated, a remote app enables control of a vast array of media players via touchscreen technology. Experts say that for seniors, these apps are better used on tablets rather than smartphones because tablets provide a much larger, easier-to-read display.

Although remote control apps allow for a more streamlined experience, as well as senior-friendly features like voice commands, many seniors may not own a smartphone or tablet, or find them intimidating or confusing to operate. The touchscreen technology also offers no physical aids, barring those who are sight-impaired from accessible use.

Mathew Moskovciak, who covers audio and video for CNET, believes that button remotes offer a better experience and more functionality than remote apps. “Because there are no physical buttons, remote apps always require you to look at them, making them a particularly poor substitute for the traditional remote experience,” he writes in a 2013 article. “You’re left shuffling your focus between two screens; you need to look at the remote app to press ‘up’ on a virtual directional pad, then look at your TV to watch the cursor move. It ends up being clunky, slow and eventually frustrating.”

Of course, solutions must be individually tailored. Some seniors may like controlling the smart TV, DVR and DVD player through one simple app on a tablet, while others may find a physical remote with easy-to-discern buttons more comforting. Fortunately, even a smart TV or Wi-Fi-connected device can be programmed with a physical remote. For either case, a number of solutions have been developed that enable seniors to access whatever media they crave more easily.

  • Universal remotes can be programmed to control a number of different media players, including TVs, cable boxes, disk players and DVRs. This reduces the need to use a different remote for each separate device.

  • Simplified TV remotes are easier to grip and have larger buttons, are often color-coded and have larger type for buttons that control basic functions like turning the TV on or off, channel changing and volume adjustment. If you can’t find a universal remote that fits your senior’s taste, four easy-to-use remotes are better than four complex ones.

  • Voice-enabled apps allow smartphones and tablets equipped with infrared blasters to control smart TVs and Wi-Fi-equipped electronics with voice commands, allowing those with poor hand-eye coordination to easily control the devices they want to use.

Guidelines for senior-friendly remotes

With the right knowledge, you can help make accessing media much easier on seniors. Designers and developers have achieved considerable progress toward making remote controls easier to use. The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, established by Ireland’s National Disability Authority, summarizes guidelines for accessible remote control designs. To help narrow your search for the perfect remote, look for ones that meet their criteria:

  • Provide a logical and easily understood layout

    • Group related buttons together (e.g., volume up and down, arrows for navigation)

    • Position buttons in a way that is consistent with functions (e.g., position the “channel up” button above the “channel down” button.)

    • Follow common industry standards (e.g., for the layout of the numeric keypad and the navigation/select cluster)

  • Reduce complexity

    • Less frequently used buttons can be hidden under a sliding fascia

    • Provide quick-access buttons for common functions assigned by the user

  • Ensure that the remote can be used with low physical effort

  • Ensure that the remote control can be used by people with limited vision

  • Provide convenient access to essential design features

    • Access to captions and sign language when included in programs

    • Control over user interface presentation text size, colors, etc.

    • Spoken output of menus, electronic program guides and other on-screen text

It can be hard to help seniors adapt to the Digital Age, so it’s good to know that senior-friendly technologies are developing and there are more (and better) alternatives on the market than ever. Help your loved one learn his or her way around the smart TVs of the 21st century to keep them connected to their favorite media.

Michael Chotiner is a former construction manager who writes on a variety of topics, from smart home technology to building kitchens. To find out more about the smart home products mentioned in this article, visit The Home Depot.