In 1950, the average life expectancy for men and women in the U.S. was 65 and 71 respectively. Now, men on average live to 76, and women can expect to live to 81. That’s a lot of extra time tacked on to the ends of people’s lives—and many senior citizens are still figuring out how best to spend those years without getting bogged down in the difficulties of aging. How can design help improve that process?
That’s the question international design and ideas firm Ideo explores in Designs On: Aging, a collection of 19 concepts that would not just make aging easier, but would help keep people happy, active, and engaged in the world around them well into their twilight.
Established as an internal project within Ideo in 2008, Designs On is a limited-edition run of semi-annual printed collections of design concepts on themes as varied as food, birth, packaging, and global warming. Under the guidance of Gretchen Addi, an associate partner at Ideo who has lectured extensively on aging and empathy in design, aging became the topic of the sixth volume of Designs On. "In the past two years, the whole topic area of aging has been heating up in the media as well as with our clients," Addi tells Co.Design. "We’re calling it the ‘new old:’ the idea that there are these extra 30 years that no one really knows what to do with. We needed to elevate the conversation around it, to get rid of the misconceptions and stereotypes and doom and gloom surrounding the topic."
So Ideo began reaching out to their design teams around the world and asked them to stage design charettes to tackle problems that the the elderly face, which they ultimately submitted to a Tumblr site. "So much that is designed in this space around aging is very vanilla and very institutional, and it doesn’t have to be," Addi says. "It can have a sense of humor and it can be highly designed, and it can be something that everyone can use." Here, five problems today's elderly commonly face, along with Ideo's proposed design solutions.
As baby boomers age, many are adopting a "you only live once" attitude towards sex. That might make the aging process more fun, but it has led to a spike in STIs among the elderly. Up In Years is a concept for a campaign to curtail that. The campaign’s one simple message—use a condom—is conveyed with cheeky catchphrases like "You never outgrow a condom."
Some studies suggest that loneliness can be as physically debilitating as smoking, according to Ideo, and it disproportionately affects the elderly. Ideo London proposed Sprouts, a program that would turn the untended gardens of the elderly into nature’s classrooms for schoolchildren. Sprouts would be a lot like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, where kids learn planting, watering, and garden nurturing skills, and earn badges along the way. The perks for seniors are company and free help with their gardens.
Ideo London imagines a Pill Necklace that turns medication into playful jewelry. Pills are strung around a string or chain, with a simple divider separating them into pills you take in the morning, at lunch, at dinner, and at night. It's designed to make it easier to remember to take medication, and it allows loved ones to easily keep track of what pills have been taken.
Ideo Singapore designed the concept for Pit Stop Posts, street furniture shaped like walking sticks and installed at intersections. They allow seniors to take a break when walking around, either by leaning on the post or hanging their shopping bags on it for a moment. By changing the urban landscape in a way specifically geared towards the elderly, "Pitstop posts is engaging a community," Addi says. "When doing things in the spirit of design for older people, you’re designing for everyone."
Few people really, truly believe they will age until they actually do. It’s hard to convince young people to take actions now that will benefit their future senior citizen selves. According to Ideo, studies have shown that when confronted with artificially aged photographs of themselves, young people are more willing to save for retirement or adopt healthier behaviors. Designed by Ideo Boston, the Gray Mirror is a concept that allows younger folks to see themselves fast-forwarded, displaying positive messages about aging and encouraging them to make healthy choices while they still can.
For more concepts from Ideo's Designs On: Aging collection, including a tricycle that doubles as a walker and a discreetly inflatable bathing suit for easier swimming, go here.