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Helpings Hands, Literally

Making Things Usable, Posts

Open Sesame! If only getting things to open were as easy as calling out a magical phrase. For many people, it is a daily challenge to open jars and prescription bottles. Even worse are the overly packaged products sealed in hard plastic to make them both easier to display and difficult to steal. Keeping the end user in mind, stores should become the gatekeepers to all of those inaccessible items.

We used to chuckle to ourselves that our mom, who lived alone, would wait for the mailman to open jars that wouldn’t yield to her arthritic hands. It really isn’t a laughing matter though. Some jars are quite a challenge, even to those of us without any debilitating condition. I am often hitting a jar, lid side down, on the floor several times to break the seal to ease the opening process. This may not be something I can do when I am 80. We bought every type of jar-opening device for my mom but none were a success and she always reverted to her tried and true obliging mailman.

Not everyone has the postal service my mom enjoyed, so another solution is necessary. Thinking about the common types of items that come in jars (condiments, pickles, sauces), there is a very easy solution to this problem. Stores could offer a jar-opening service at the customer service desk. The lids could be opened and then put back on firmly but not beyond the capability of the consumer. Once home, the items could be refrigerated immediately. This would mean buying on an as-needed basis and not stockpiling specials, but I think it would be worth it.

Before 1982, you could easily open any over-the-counter medication without a problem. They were in bottles that had a basic screw cap. The tamper-proof packaging only came into play after a criminal, dubbed the Tylenol Terrorist, added some cyanide-laced capsules into bottles of Tylenol causing seven deaths. Some copycat poisoners also compromised some food products, so now many food items also have difficult barriers to access. You know the ones I mean: the foil seal over the opening of the ketchup bottle? These tamper-proof products could also be opened at a customer service desk of any store.

The biggest challenge for many seniors is accessing their daily regime of prescription drugs. The child-resistant bottles now require you to line up arrows, push down and twist the lid, all the while crossing your fingers and toes for good luck. Apparently, these are user-tested to ensure that most children can’t open them, but that most aged and disabled adults can. This is to protect children, and I agree that they need protection, but young children are very adept at opening things. I remember when my son, a sleepwalker, was two. I tried everything to confine him to his room so that he wouldn’t fall down the stairs or possibly leave the house. I resorted to putting a childproof door handle cover on the inside knob of his bedroom door. I still found him outside his room. The little Houdini was able to clamp tightly on the plastic knob and turn it. I never saw him actually do it but he must have been using two hands as the contraption was quite large for his little grip. And he was asleep! If only seniors could do that.

I agree that seniors who live with young children should have child-resistant prescription bottles. In these cases though, there would be other adults in the house for assistance to open their bottles. My mom kept all of the caps off her prescription drugs, as she couldn’t open them herself. This resulted in her spilling them. So she then resorted to purchasing the much more expensive blister packs. I’m not sure how those are considered child-resistant. Gum is sold in blister packs and I have seen young children easily access gum. It is quite amazing how children watch and learn.

By the time my mom was having such difficulty with dispensing pills and was taking them more regularly, her grandchildren were well past the age of concern. Anyone who lives alone with no young kids in their homes should have the option of having their pills dispensed in a more accessible bottle. They could sign off on the back of the doctor’s prescription that is filed at the drug store so that they could accept any liability if a child was harmed.

The worst pet peeve of mine when it comes to opening items is the consumer products that are completely encased in plastic. This is another area where stores should provide a customer service to open packaging once the product is purchased. I understand the need for difficult access, as we need barriers to shoplifters. But it is always a challenge for me to open these items and to do so without cutting myself on the resultant sharp plastic edges. I bought a pair of scissors especially for this task as they were advertised to open anything. Sure enough, they did work, but somehow these magical scissors disappear just like socks in the laundry. When you need them, they are as elusive as the TV remote. However, one item that doesn’t disappear in my house is the manual can opener. It’s always in the drawer where it belongs. Apparently, according to a household tip I recently read on the Internet, this is the ideal tool for opening those Fort Knox-like packages. I have yet to try it, but I am hopeful.

All in all, retail stores are the go-betweens in getting products to the consumer, so the responsibility is theirs to fine-tune meeting the user needs. Those first to bat offering “opening” services at their customer service desk will likely get loyalty from the older demographic of society. The best part? There would be a magical phrase: “Please, could you give me a hand?”

Dianne Pinder

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