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Product Design for the Elderly

By Gretchen Anderson

If we are what we use, then it seems the elderly people in today's society are cranky, stupid and tacky. Of course, looking at products made for the elderly really says more about what product designers and manufacturers think the elderly are. Even as technology has gotten smaller, more powerful and cheaper, the design aesthetic for the pre-Boomer generation is still exemplified by orthopedic shoes. But this won't last for long. As our society matures, and Baby Boomers start swelling the ranks of the "elderly," we will have to start coming up with better-looking, more useful products for seniors.

The number of people over the age of 65 is going to double over the next quarter-century, thanks to the aging of the Baby Boom Generation. The people who came of age in the late '50s to early '70s watched a man land on the Moon and lava lamps gurgle; they aren't going to be satisfied with products that are as utilitarian in form and function as the ones their parents currently use. Boomers will bring their great influence and purchasing power to bear on businesses and demand experiences that are more elegant and agile. As a result, the engineers who currently dominate design for the elderly must learn to work with designers, just as they have in the high-tech product world.


But we owe it to today's seniors to start making better products that meet their special needs now. Recently I've been designing medical devices aimed largely at the elderly, and I've begun to realize that our collective understanding of their needs could use some refinement. When we talk about the needs of seniors there is a tendency to imagine someone whose eyesight, dexterity and hearing are so impaired that they are incapable of having an experience; it's therefore assumed that they will make do with, or perhaps even prefer, a mechanistic, bulky product that smells like a hospital. Orthopedic shoes haven't changed much in 40 years, even in color. Wheelchairs for the elderly tend to look like erector-set robots, with exposed motors and oversized wheels. A doorknob handle meant to help those with dexterity issues may give grandmother leverage, but it also screams out to houseguests, "I'm losing my grip!"


Specialty online retailers, like Gold Violin and Senior Shops, eschew the traditional e-commerce catalog structure in favor of a more practical set of categories like "Handle Better," "Hear Better," and "Work Better." This is a step in the right direction, towards making online shopping easier for seniors by focusing on value rather than jargon. However, the products offered tend to be "after-market" accessories to help seniors cope with things that weren't designed with them in mind: Button and zipper closers, seat pads and magnifying glasses dominate the offerings.


One encouraging trend is the development of products that aren't explicitly designed for the elderly market, but cater to their needs nonetheless. The OXO/Good Grips products, for example, have influenced culinary product design to be more usable for everyone. These products feature oversize handles and non-slip materials molded into pleasing shapes, which appeal to chefs regardless of their physical faculties.

Mobility products are also becoming better designed, allowing the disabled to become more self-sufficient—not to mention more stylish. Sports wheelchairs are starting to influence motorized versions, introducing more color and modern shapes that move beyond the hospital aesthetic.


But these are small improvements, and we need to do better. Product designers and developers can start by creating products and experiences that both function well and blend into the aesthetics of a household, rather than sticking out like ugly sore thumbs. Natural materials and refined colors make products feel more human, addressing a great deal of the "techno-phobia" ascribed to the elderly. While older people may not be comfortable whizzing around a PC, they aren't strangers to technology. Seniors today are used to accomplishing many things through people, not machines. If our machines worked more like people, using natural language and more welcoming user interfaces, our elders might find them less intimidating. We need the next generation of technology to take after seeing-eye dogs, not robots.


We need exercise equipment for the mind and body, not just products that treat the inevitable decline. Products that help older people travel more easily, and social networks that help seniors volunteer and cooperate will make sure that they stay connected and involved. Classes and education for seniors are critical, and featured prominently at senior centers and JCCs. We can use technology to bring education to more people, and re-imagine it as the purpose of life for the elderly—to grow their minds and stay engaged. Our seniors will be living longer, as well as better. Our challenge is to make their lives meaningful.

Gretchen Anderson is a Senior Design Analyst for frog design.

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