Last week, the economic reporter of TV Channel 10, Matan Hodorov, presented a report he had prepared on senior citizens and digital banking.
As the banks are progressively closing down branches and offering more and more services online and by means of applications on smart phones, senior citizens find it increasingly difficult to utilize even the most basic services, simply because they are not proficient in the use of such technologies.
The Banking Supervision Department in the Bank of Israel is aware of the problem, and has started holding instruction courses for senior citizens in the use of digital services (especially in nursing homes, I believe). It has also instructed the banks to give precedence to senior citizens and disabled persons in the provision of telephone services.
I am skeptical regarding the efficiency of this welcome effort, for the simple reason that even though many senior citizens are certainly capable of learning how to successfully use digital services (at 75 I regularly use digital services on the Internet, but do not own a smartphone as a matter of principle), many senior citizens have both physical and mental barriers to doing so. In addition, with very few exceptions, one simply cannot establish telephone contact with the banks, and many services cannot be given over the phone (for example, services requiring signatures).
In his report, Hodorov accompanied a 95-year-old gentleman – Nahman Bernstein – who was being instructed by a Bank Leumi instructor how to deposit a check by means of a machine.
Bernstein, who was full of determination and understood what he was being told to do, was having difficulties because his fingers are stiff and no longer nimble, and because he had problems typing his user name and password (sometimes one is also required to type a code). It took Bernstein 40 minutes to perform the task, with the instructor and Hodorov standing by. At some point, Hodorov felt sorry for Bernstein, and suggested that perhaps he should give up, since standing on his feet for 40 minutes was clearly not easy for him. But he insisted – it was a matter of pride: of proving that he could still be independent. Though finally the check was deposited, the whole episode was heartbreaking. I am sure that if Bernstein were to return to the machine to deposit a check on his own, he would fail dismally.
But the problem isn’t just how to teach senior citizens to use digital services, which can even be fun, but a much broader social issue. The digital age, as we keep reading, can be very lonely and depressing. For senior citizens, the problem is not only to perform daily chores and feel independent, it is also to fight loneliness and depression.
I am a relatively young senior citizen, and all my life I have preferred spending most of the day on my own, doing my work, pursuing hobbies and minding my own business. However, it has always been important to have human contact for several hours a day – be it with friends, co-workers service providers and people one meets at random. To the present day I occasionally go to my bank (the Union Bank), and besides performing my chores there, I briefly chat with my investment adviser (his little boy goes to an anthroposophic kindergarten; so did my granddaughters), and the bank clerks (all of whom are also available on the phone).
In the supermarket, I occasionally chat with the manager (usually about products his supermarket branch doesn’t offer), and always exchange pleasantries with the cashiers (one of the old-time cashiers, who still remembers my eldest daughter who was killed in 1995, reminds me every year when Anath’s yorzeit is according to the Hebrew calendar, and tells me that she has asked her husband to say kaddish for Anath at his synagogue). I could do all my grocery shopping online – but why?
What I am trying to say is that though one can’t and shouldn’t try to reverse the digital age, one should make a conscious effort to avoid digitalizing everything for everyone. It is important that senior citizens should be able to receive services involving human contact face to face.
I know that the banks are closing down branches and increasing their digital services in order to save money. I would be more sympathetic if people like the CEO of Bank Leumi Rakefet Russak-Aminoach received a normal salary (according to reports, she received around NIS 8 million per annum + bonuses).
I would also be more sympathetic if the banks would be required to account for the billions of shekels they lost on bad loans to some of our ex-tycoons (e.g. Nohi Dankner, Lev Leviev, Eliezer Fishman). Seeing the heads of the banks sitting at meetings of the Knesset Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on the Banks’ Loans, and refraining from answering any questions (a bunch of silent fish in an aquarium) was sickening, and given the fact that many senior citizens were among the millions of Israelis who paid with their hard-earned money for the banks’ monumental screw-up, perhaps the banks should make it up to them by offering them human services, even if this means that the likes of Russak-Aminoach will have their salaries and bonuses cut drastically.
But to return to online digital services. I should like to ask those responsible for creating the relevant websites to please try to simplify some of the tasks. While I find my bank’s website quite user-friendly and usually manage to perform whatever task I am trying to execute with ease, the same does not apply to the website of the Association of Academics in the Social Sciences and Humanities that manages my provident fund and keren hishtalmut (advanced study fund).
There I keep encountering the enervating phenomenon of “I am not a robot.” Especially if I forget my password, I keep coming across scrambled and distorted numbers and capital and ordinary letters that are not always readable, which I am asked to copy, or low-quality photographs (as an avid photographer I can tell a low-quality photograph when I see one) in which I am required to identify road signs, shop-windows, cars in street scenes, which a budding cataract makes even more difficult. On one occasion I simply yelled at my computer, “I am not a robot – you are!”
For heaven’s sake, all you Internet programmers, with all due respect to security, if you are working on a program designed for the use of senior citizens, or which senior citizens are likely to use, please don’t raise unnecessary barriers. For contorted mental exercise I have “Killer Sudoku” – I don’t need such exercises when all I am trying to do is check how badly my various forms of savings are doing (the good news is that the Bank of Israel has started raising interest rates).
I suddenly had an amusing thought: how would our prime minister (who apparently doesn’t even own a credit card) fare if he had to perform some banking task digitally, without Netanyahu Jr. standing at his side?
As for Hodorov (and MK Itzik Shmuli, for that matter) – in an era of offensive ageism, I tip my hat to you for paying attention to the concerns of us senior citizens, who simply want to remain independent and keep our self-respect for as long as possible.