The Elderly and television

We’ll Have A Grey Old Time

You could write a whole book about the elderly.  But it wouldn’t sell many copies. There’s just something about the topic that lacks interest.  Perhaps older people aren’t sexy, but neither are babies and that doesn’t stop us staring at them. As a subject for deeper analysis, old people leave us a bit… wrinkled.

So well done the BBC for having a series of programmes about old people: they watch SO MUCH television that it’s only fair to return the favour.

When you look at the reasons why people watch TV, the top reasons are for entertainment, news, to relax and so on.  But when you compare age groups, you can understand why the elderly value TV so much. There’s also a curious connection between teenagers and the over 75s.  The Touchpoints Survey, conducted by the IPA, asks adults of all ages about their day and the media they consume and why.

The table shows the biggest skews by age

Age

Most associated reason for watching TV

Next

Next

Teens-24

To talk about while watching

To spend time with others

To make me feel better

25-34

A treat or reward

To talk about while watching

To spend time with others

35-44

A treat or reward

To spend time with others

Force of habit

45-54

For practical advice

Sports

News and current affairs

55-64

For practical advice

To stimulate my imagination

News and current affairs

65-74

To keep me company

Sports

News and current affairs

75+

To keep me company

To keep up to date

To talk about afterwards

So, while the people in their 40s and 50s say that the TV is for practical reasons, or for the news and sport, the younger and oldest people are most likely to cite its value for social reasons.

The teenagers will engage while the programmes are on, and the TV is a good excuse for them to be with people.  Interesting too, that for the youngest people more than others, TV makes them feel better – reminding us how miserable it can be to be young, attractive, and without responsibilities (the ungrateful so and sos).   Then for the 25-44s, it’s a treat, but also with a social element.

But how about the older 65s?  Television is less something to enhance their social life, than to replace it. It helps to prevent loneliness.

Unlike youngsters, the elderly don’t want to talk while the TV is on. Nor does it provide an opportunity to be with other people, but it does give the over 75s something, perhaps, to talk about later.  And you can imagine that for people on their own, without work and a social life that is more restricted, a steady flow of television programmes provides conversational material.

One of the most interesting TED talks is by Laura Carstensen, talking about her Socioemotional Selectivity Theory.    As we get older we become more sensitive and give up things that upset us. We adjust our behaviour to suit how many years we have left.  And this is a positive thing – it’s why older people are happier.

And TV is part of that.  TV has a particular role for the elderly, and they have particular needs.  So as well as TV providing a coping tool for old age, helping to create a structure and new routines, and distraction from sadness, it also affects what they want to watch.   They don’t mind emotional content, up to a point, and can tap into their own emotions more easily, but they gravitate towards positive content. But there’s no point in watching anything which is painful, hard work, scary or offensive.   It’s the same reason that blind dates, and networking, are really for the younger people.  For the elderly, life… or more particularly, that part of life which is left…  is too short.

This probably means that the over 75s won’t be watching the BBC programmes which are showing some of the painful reality of elderly life.

One other aspect of being older is that you can no longer be arsed, frankly, to keep seeking out new things.  That’s one reason why advertisers spend so little time targeting them – they’re considered too hard to win over.  Another is that they watch so much TV (at all times of day) that there’s no need to target them, because they come anyway. And when they ARE targeted creatively, advertisers, understanding that the elderly value advice from people they know, have provided a welcome second (or fourth) career for Michael Parkinson recommending stuff.

Gerontology

When you read the academic literature on gerontology, and particularly geriatrics, you find very little about TV.  When I asked Age Concern, who know a LOT about the elderly, what research they had conducted about TV viewing by old people, they replied rather charmingly that television was ‘Rather more ubiquitous than an elephant in the room, but, by the look of our research library, equally ignored‘.

One Foot In The Grave. Gallows humour…

An excellent recent study by the BBC found that we tend to think of the elderly in terms of the event they are closest to (death), rounding them up as it were.  We COULD see them as a pot of accumulated wisdom and wealth that is ready to pay out (the former, probably sooner than the latter).  But old people themselves, the BBC found, don’t think of themselves as old anyway – the over 75s knock 16 years off their actual age when asked how old they feel.

Which is why you have to be subtle targeting them.  They don’t really want to see Parkie and Rolf everywhere just because they’re old.  And programmes which make an effort to think about their needs – such as The One Show, but not doing it overtly, seem to have really profited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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