Smart Moves: Time to help the elderly in the aisles

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The Independent Online
Marilyn strained her eyes to make out the cost of the soap powder on special offer in the supermarket, but found she couldn't read the price tag properly. Nor could she read her own shopping list. Her legs felt heavy, she could only move her arms with great effort and was unable to hold anything properly.

A shelf stacker spotted her distress and came over to ask if she needed any help but Marilyn couldn't hear what she said. Her weekly shopping trip was turning into a nightmare.

On her way to the check-out she collided with a bread trolley left in the aisle. And at the till she took ages sorting out the right coins to pay for her goods. Then the final indignity: the condescending check-out girl short-changed her.

It was only when she was through the check-out barrier and slumped in a chair that her trial came to an end. Her one-hour ordeal as a guinea pig in a sensory deprivation workshop conducted at the Co-op supermarket where she worked was finally over. She tore off her distorting goggles and rubber gloves, removed the weights from her arms and legs and took the plugs from her ears.

"That was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life," said Marilyn Jones, an employee at the Co-op's branch in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. "I felt completely disorientated, and couldn't see or hear anything. The weights on my limbs made me feel really tired." Ms Jones and her supermarket colleagues were taking part in a project designed to give staff, particularly in large stores, a taste of the difficulties old and disabled people face when they go shopping.

Participants in the Age Concern scheme are asked to put on a pair of scratched and opaque goggles that simulate either the typical vision of a cataract sufferer, the limited scope of tunnel vision or the effects of glaucoma. To add to the sensory deprivation they put on a pair of tight rubber gloves (this numbs the fingers), attach a three-kilo weight to the left ankle and a two-kilo weight to the right wrist, and wear swimming armbands on the elbow to stiffen the arm - these ape the effects of a stroke and arthritis.

"For two hours I became 75 years old, partially blind and deaf, with a limp from a mild stroke, arthritis in the left elbow and in both hands," said Ms Jones. "I was completely disorientated, frustrated and angry. But I got a real sense of what a frightening world it can be for handicapped people." The Age Concern workshop, called Through Other Eyes, is designed to demonstrate to business executives, suppliers and policy makers in retailing, label and lighting designers, and service personnel in stores just what they have to bear in mind when providing for and working with the old and infirm. The objective is to introduce changes in attitudes, services, product packaging and presentation.

A recent Which? survey into shopping showed that more than one-third of elderly people said they had difficulties finding the right prices in supermarkets. Small print, and signs placed either too high or too low, can make finding out how much things cost frustrating, if not impossible.

Many stores - Asda, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's and Somerfield, for example - do train staff to help elderly and disabled people with "assisted shopping", accompanying customers around the store. But that's not for everyone, and besides, more imaginative solutions are needed.

Legislation is also on the side of the consumer: the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act says that supermarkets should now have alternative methods of providing price information for disabled people.

The Age Concern simulation workshop comes at a time when the population is ageing. By 2026 half of all UK adults will be over 55, and yet it is people in that age bracket who own two-thirds of the country's savings.

What is more, average expenditure remains constant right up until the age of 75. And older people spend a far higher proportion of their money on food than others.

Age Concern's pioneering Through Other Eyes project was originally developed in Ontario, Canada, and soon attracted international attention.

The programme was introduced into Japan and New Zealand, where it has become an established part of the education of service personnel, integral to product design and manufacturing, and even has a place in the mainstream education of secondary schoolchildren. In this country B&Q, British Gas, the Co-op, Safeway, local authorities and the packaging industry generally have used Through Other Eyes as a tool to identify where changes need to be made.

"We are constantly striving to improve the layouts of our stores and to make our products more user-friendly," said Chris Mardell, regional chief officer of the Co-op's South Midlands division.

In the second part of the workshop participants are given the task of reading instructions, sewing, and opening packs. Here staff critically assess the products that are on sale in their own workplace - this often has immense repercussions in design and presentation, with speedy action being taken.

Among the changes frequently recommended are the removal of cluttered and unnecessary text from labels, greater legibility, the use of larger print and less glaring colours. Some font styles are found to be easier to read than others and even the type of paper used showed a wide variation in readability. The old chestnut of hard-to-open packaging regularly rears its head - milk cartons are especially cumbersome. And above all, participants say, staff attitudes must change.