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How Carlos San Juan Made Spanish Banks Think About Counter Services

It was his bank’s limited counter service and indifference to his struggles with ATMs and apps that forced Spanish retiree Carlos San Juan into action, highlighting the panic the digital revolution is causing many elderly people.

For Carlos San Juan, of the eastern port city of Valencia, the tipping point was an ATM incident where bank staff “flatly refused to come out to help” and wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t have an appointment.

A retired urologist from Valencia, went home and wrote a manifesto entitled “I’m old, not an idiot”, which was initially signed in December by about 100 friends and acquaintances.

It struck a chord and quickly made its way to the online platform, where it received nearly 650,000 messages of support and was brought before the authorities.

The pressure was so great that Spain’s three main banking associations signed a protocol last week in the presence of Economy Minister Nadia Calvino, in which he pledged to improve customer service for the elderly.

Bank branches “will extend their counter opening hours”, “priority will be given to the elderly” and “ATMs, banking apps and web pages will be adapted with a simplified interface and language,” according to the Spanish Banking Association (AEB), one of the signatories.

San Juan: ‘Be patient with us’

San Juan hopes the measure will end “the plight of those who still have bank books, and that of the elderly with mobility problems who have to queue in wheelchairs, with walkers or canes, who “keep coming back” to get a ​bank employee face to face.

“I have Parkinson’s disease,” says this kind, articulate 78-year-old who normally goes to the bank when there are fewer people because he needs more time.

People his age need to be patient, he says. “We can learn something today and forget it two days later.”

The elderly are “definitely not against digitization… That is here to stay”, all they want is “a more humane transition” to the future.

AEB chairman Jose María Roldan agrees.

“San Juan has made us all realize that we need to take care of those who can’t go so fast and those who always need help because of their personal circumstances,” he said at the signing ceremony.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, Spain’s banking sector has halved its number of branches to around 20,000, laying off nearly 40 percent of its employees – of which there are 172,000 today, according to figures from the European Central Bank.

That is an average of eight employees per branch, compared to an average of 12.5 in neighboring France, which has 402,000 employees and 32,000 branches.

– ‘State of distrust’ –

Some are already trying imaginative solutions to tackle the problems.

In Anover de Tormes, a small village of about 100 residents about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the northwestern city of Salamanca, a library bus pulls out of the fog and parks.

In November, the “Bibliobus” was equipped with an ATM that David Mingo, head of culture for the province of Salamanca, describes as “an important first step towards solving a major problem”.

After serving six people, the bus continues to Santiz, which has 300 inhabitants, three bars and a school.

In front of the ‘Bibliobus’, Agustina Juan, 79, admits in frustration that she does not know how to withdraw money with a card. In the three villages AFP visited, only one person used the ATM to withdraw money.

“I have no idea how to use it. Do you know why I have it? So I can pay with the card when I go to the supermarket”, she shrugs.

The bigger problem is trying to fix an erroneous bank statement or other problem.

“I have to travel 40 kilometers (to the branch) to see what happened. Or if you call, it’s terrible: the line is always busy and you have to keep calling,” she says.

By her side, 76-year-old Raquel Vicente says the elderly have lost track of their finances.

“All you can do in old age is count your money, but with such a system you just don’t see it, so you live in a constant state of mistrust,” she sighs.

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