Left Behind

Janie Thibodeau Martin

It is amazing to reflect on the technology changes that have occurred in the last 20 years.  I remember getting my first wireless “flip phone” for work, a convenient upgrade from the pager I wore for years and the “bag phone” I carried for on-call weekends.  

Then came smart phones, and the ability to access almost anything from almost anywhere.  Businesses were quick to capitalize on the popularity of this technology and “on line” from anywhere banking, shopping, and entertainment that was unimaginable just a few years before became available.

Now I can check availability of something I need before I go to a store; or just click a few buttons and order it online, to be delivered to my doorstep with no need to drive.  I can send my health care provider a note on line instead of enduring the hell of trying to contact someone by phone; move money around in accounts, and drive guided by a navigation system.  For someone directionally challenged like I am, that’s been life-changing.

So far, I’ve been able to master most of this with minimal help from my “personal technical resources.”  But sometimes, when I’m not focused on my phone, I look up and notice people who have been left behind.  It’s an uncomfortable thing to watch.

Whenever I have a choice, I still use checkout lines staffed by a human.  But increasingly, there are fewer of those available, and some stores are flirting with eliminating them entirely.  Watching someone with mobility challenges unloading their carts, trying to figure out the scanning system and sort out how to weigh two bananas is painful.  On more than one occasion, I’ve observed the store’s single “troubleshooter” in a nest of self-checkouts with several shoppers obviously in need of help, and the result is gridlock of the whole area.  Not to mention, for some, frustration and embarrassment.  No one likes to have to admit they can’t navigate something that seems so simple for others.

I did some traveling recently, and paper airline tickets are nearly extinct. According to a recent Consumer Reports article, checking in with a counter agent will set you back $25 at Frontier Airlines; and Spirit Airlines will charge you $25 for printing a paper boarding pass.   If you don’t have a smart phone loaded with your boarding pass, you are holding up the line.  If it is necessary for you to change your flight, you either hunt for a service desk or call a 1-800 “hold the line until you die of old age” number.  I love the convenience of being able to immediately sort out such snafus on my phone by myself, but Mike and I have encountered stranded seniors who can’t negotiate those systems on more than one occasion.

A few times, I’ve extended help to people at gas stations.  Most stations have a sign posted that if you notify them you need help, they will provide you with assistance at the pump.   But, only IF they have adequate staff to do so.  Someone who requires a walker or a wheel chair, or who just has difficulty standing or walking may find the elevated pumps and hanging hoses a significant trip/fall hazard, especially if it’s icy or snowing.   Others don’t use credit cards, or can’t sort out the process of using a card at the pump.  The walk inside to prepay can be a barrier all by itself.  

I wish one local gas station willing to try something new would offer a full service attendant to help with pumping gas once or twice a week, like 8-10 Thursday mornings only.  I bet if it was publicized enough, the station would attract grateful customers, along with community good will.

Luckily, there are some good customer service people who respectfully and patiently help those who are struggling, and they are a blessing.  Other times, it seems like there is no one around willing to help, or who helps grudgingly and impatiently; or even fails to notice someone who needs assistance.   I know that I’d want someone to reach out to help my mom if she needed assistance; and someday, as new systems I can’t even imagine now arrive, I myself will be the one struggling.  The problem is not that most of us are unwilling to help; the problem is we are so buried in our technology we don’t even look up from our phones to notice who might appreciate our assistance.

I welcome commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address:  JanieTMartin@gmail.com


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