Next Avenue Logo

Digital Ageism

Companies need to appreciate that electronic replacements for mechanical devices are not an improvement for all of their customers

By Lisa Napoli

My cell phone started ringing just as I turned the key in my front door. George, my dear friend and neighbor in downtown Los Angeles, was calling.

We had just shared a celebratory lunch, and an unwelcome surprise awaited him when he returned to his apartment. Building management had installed a new digital lock on his front door while we were out.

And he didn't have the code.

A person using a digital door lock at home. Next Avenue, ageism
"One person's efficiency tool can be another's obstacle."  |  Credit: Getty

On the eve of his 90th birthday, George found himself shut out of his long-time home.

I rushed across the plaza that separates our buildings. I had a hunch what must have occurred.

Can't drive anymore? "Just call Uber" isn't a solution for someone who doesn't own a smartphone.

Building management, it seemed, had been alerting tenants about the upcoming change via email and text — methods of communication my friend didn't use. As his eyesight had been faltering, George hadn't been getting online much lately. His sole lifeline to the world was his ever-ringing flip phone.

Apps for All (Who Can Use Them)

In the name of efficiency, more companies are driving customers to conduct business digitally. QR codes for menus in restaurants. COVID-19 vaccines scheduled exclusively online. Apps for everything, from banking to health care to travel to routine maintenance requests.

The presumption that everyone's life is fully digital — and that everybody is, or wants to be, comfortable with screens — shuts out many who may not be deft with the technology, or even have access to it.

George panicked last year when his building's management company shut down its on-site office and began requiring tenants pay rent digitally. Having to mail in the check he used to deliver in person increased the possibility of late fees. Paying online was not something with which he felt comfortable.

Texted to Distraction

My 85-year-old mother just had a medical issue — the first in her life — and suddenly found herself barraged with texts directing her at an already stressful time to upload documents, respond to surveys and confirm appointments. Perhaps even worse, finding an alternative method of contact (such as . . . a phone number) was usually impossible.

Last year, the appliance store from which she'd purchased a new refrigerator demanded that she fill out a detailed form sent to her via text, and to upload a picture of the defective merchandise before a repairperson would respond.

Can't drive anymore? "Just call Uber" isn't a solution for someone who doesn't own a smartphone.

One person's efficiency tool can be another's obstacle, said Dr. Caroline Cicero, a gerontology professor and director of the University of Southern California's Age Friendly University Initiative. While helping her father recently to deposit a check at a bank, she found herself frustrated when the branch manager tried to steer him to instead use an app.

"I don't think we should assume that everyone, young or old or middle-aged, is better off using an app to do our banking," she said. "Companies need to provide humans to talk with. Automation and robots cannot handle questions that may not be pre-written."

"Companies need to provide humans to talk with. Automation and robots cannot handle questions that may not be pre-written."

Like the situation with George. That afternoon during his lockout, we each stood in his hallway on our respective phones, frantically calling various numbers in search of help.

The digital keypad company representative petulantly told my friend that the records indicated he'd been emailed and texted codes.

Blinded by Technology

"But I can't receive texts, and I'm locked out," said George, indignant. "I'm not able to access my computer."

To the millennial on the other end of the phone, the idea that one couldn't access information on their phone was preposterous.

"Check your email on your phone," he insisted, oblivious to the idea that someone couldn't. "I also texted you a code."


After an hour, a friendly building maintenance person showed up, extolling the virtues of the new system as if he were a salesperson.

"People just love these new digital locks," he said, ignoring the addled state of the tenant before him. "You can give the code to friends. You don't have to bother with a key!"

Looking at me, he added, "You can use the app to open the door for him, from wherever you are."

"Can't I just have a key?"

"He's my friend, not my father," I said, annoyed that this person didn't understand how demoralizing it was for a person not to be able to open his own front door. "How would your grandmother deal with this system?"

Well, he shrugged, she probably couldn't. Then, he called up a temporary code that allowed us to enter George's unit. Inside, we logged onto his email, and retrieved the company-assigned digits that would now serve as his lock. They hadn't even paid for the upgrade that allowed you to choose your own code.

How Will He Remember?

George panicked. How would he remember these random series of numbers, much less punch them in on a tiny keypad?

"Can't I just have a key?" George asked, pointing to the old-fashioned keyhole above the keypad. "There's no way I'll remember that, much less be able to see those numbers."

In the meantime, I rooted on the countertop for a pen, and began writing out cheat-sheets. Sticking a piece of paper in George's wallet, I also made a record of it for myself.

"This is your new key," I said, trying to feign optimism.

Landlord with a Heart

Later on, I, along with George's daughter — a lawyer who lives in a different city — composed stern emails to management explaining the severity of having locked a tenant out of his apartment — and installing a system that was challenging for him to navigate.

The next morning, the friendly maintenance man appeared at the front door of George's apartment — old-fashioned key in hand.

George was happy, and relieved, at this work-around that relieved him from digital jail.

Later that day, I ran into another neighbor, Nicole, who just turned 83.

"Did you hear we got new locks?" she said. "They're amazing! I love not having to carry a key."

Lisa Napoli covered the dawn of the World Wide Web for The New York Times, MSNBC and Marketplace on National Public Radio. She is the author of four books, most recently about the “founding mothers” of NPR. Read More
Next Avenue LogoMeeting the needs and unleashing the potential of older Americans through media
©2023 Next AvenuePrivacy PolicyTerms of Use
A nonprofit journalism website produced by:
TPT Logo