Life-Support Television

Imagine a new drug made for old people. It has few physical effects, but many psychological. It keeps people calm and satiated, and it keeps their mind occupied without requiring physical activity. By sitting someone down and administering the drug, you can easily placate them. This drug already exists; it’s called “television”.

No, before you object, I’m not criticizing television, nor watchers of television. I am not passing judgment on anybody – just sharing a perception and a worry.

The last interaction with my Grandma got me thinking. Older people watch a lot of television, especially in nursing homes or under supervised care. Every day, they spend a huge amount of time watching TV. It becomes part of their daily routine – almost an essential part. Right now, there are countless people alone in nursing homes staring at the TV. It makes me think of a sad thought experiment.

Imagine every television were to suddenly shut off and become unusable. How many people would quickly find themselves lonely, restless, or depressed? I would guess a lot. All that mental stimulation and daily preoccupation would disappear.

It’s as if the flickering light of a TV is a little flickering flame of life. It not only occupies the mind, but gives a feeling of importance or purpose, a feeling of connection to the world. And perhaps an escape from loneliness. If you’re alone for eight hours a day, the humans on a TV screen can keep you company. They can entertain you and keep you up-to-date on what’s happening in the world.

For me, this creates a mix of gratefulness and sadness. Surely, television is a valuable tool. But in old age, I’ve seen a hundred caregivers use it as they would for a child – just a way to keep them occupied and entertained. It’s akin to spoon-feeding distractions to a child to keep them quiet. But then these distractions become an essential part of the day, the core experience around which everything else is oriented.

When my wife and I visit Grandma, Billy Maysshe’s usually in front of the television. When we leave, she turns back on the television. Granted, she loves to engage us and talk to us while we’re there, and she clearly values human interaction more than television. But once we’ve left, it’s unclear how much human interaction is supplemented by talking heads, flashing lights, and infomercials. Billy Mays sells products to old people, and I also get the sense he helps ease their loneliness. If suddenly the television went dark, how big a hole would it leave in the lives of older people?

Again, this isn’t to condemn anybody; these thoughts just disturb me. I worry that some day I’ll be in the same situation. And I wonder: do older people know that television is a tool to occupy them? Do they recognize their own loneliness and welcome the television as a crutch? Are they self-aware that their caregivers view them as a bit of a burden and are grateful for the TV’s ability to keep them sate? I fear the answers are as upsetting as the questions.

Think about it this way: if instead of television, people were using pills to achieve the same effect, wouldn’t it be a problem? If you could pop grandpa a pill which made him sit in the same chair for hours, and kept him occupied and entertained, surely it wouldn’t be healthy to give that pill to him every day, for years. If ultimately, television is such a drug, I can’t shake the feeling of sadness.

Of course, younger people have their own distractions. It’s TV for some; the internet for others. I know the internet has occupied and distracted me for hundreds and hundreds of hours. I may end up an old, lonely, web-surfing grandpa, watching cat videos on Youtube for the last 20 years of my life. It sounds funny, but I’m only half-kidding.

This is one of those murky areas, where it’s impossible to say whether something is simply “good” or “bad”. Television brings us a trade-off: we are given limitless entertainment and perhaps a way to dull our sense of loneliness. Surely, that’s a good thing. But at what point does the tool become a crutch? I don’t know, and it’s not fun to think about.