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The New Old: High-Tech and Design for Aging

Boomers have become comfortable with technology, and they have learned lessons from their parents about how not to age.

Mariyana M/Shutterstock

The number of adults aged 65 and older will double to nearly 90 million people by 2050. Amid an already stretched health care infrastructure, plagued by rising costs and a shortage of skilled workers, the baby boom generation — the largest in history — is aging into the most demanding segment of consumers.

For decades, aging was a predictable process. People put in their time and retired at age 65. Many of them downsized or moved to retirement communities. As their bodies started to break down, senior citizens went to doctors, hospitals and assisted living facilities to treat the effects of aging. They were given poorly thought-out assistive products — walkers that required them to add tennis balls to the feet to achieve the right balance of motion and stability, or large, cumbersome buttons to wear around their necks in case of emergency — that stigmatized them in the best-case scenario and failed them in the worst case. They accepted this, because they had no choice.

The health care system is scrambling to develop the products and services to meet the physical needs of the aging population, but it isn’t prepared. The New Old is a “youthful,” tech-savvy and fiercely independent generation. It will be a generation that refuses to sit back in a rocking chair and fade into obscurity, that fights back against aging, and that has already started demanding radical changes to the existing model.

As a “sandwich generation,” many baby boomers have cared for an aging parent, and developed strong opinions and preferences that will affect their decisions as they themselves age. Boomers have become comfortable with technology, and they have learned lessons from their parents about how not to age. The New Old have worked with and embraced computers, the Internet, e-commerce and social media as part of their lives, and they will expect these conveniences to carry on into their older years.

While Silicon Valley excels in creating technology that engages younger consumers and makes business practices more efficient, there is a growing opportunity for technologists to apply their skill sets to redefine how people age. Take, for example, the current trend of aging in place. Smart technology has started transforming homes, infiltrating everything from our thermostats to ovens to light bulbs. Studies show that nearly 90 percent of seniors want to age in place, and new smart home monitoring technologies can help them do that. From small “stickable” sensors that monitor medication intake to entire home systems that can identify a fall through motion detection and alert a caregiver for help, home monitoring products are enabling older adults to age safely and independently in the comfort of their homes.

In recent decades, medicine has made extraordinary advances, and has done an amazing job at creating technology to address different ailments. But we are entering an age of “invisibility” — automated solutions are disappearing into the fabric of users’ daily lives and allowing someone to live without thinking twice about using them (think Samantha, the OS in the movie “Her”). More and more innovators are coming to us to create health care products that integrate with mobile technology, the cloud and artificial intelligence. As boomers increasingly demand to age in place, however, we’ve found that creating advanced technology isn’t enough anymore — we must spend time talking to aging users and their caregivers and studying the ecosystems of their lives to understand how the new technologies we develop can best service them.

Aging is an emotional process. Today’s products and services must address the physical needs of the New Old, but they must also address the essential human element of aging. It is now time to start thinking more carefully about how products are designed to enable older adults to maintain their independence, dignity, sense of self and purpose as they age.

What are the design needs of the New Old? And how can high-tech innovators address the needs of a large population and critical societal need?

Enable independence: Loss of independence is one of people’s biggest fears about aging, and products designed without attention to their needs can hasten the process of dependence. Older adults should be able to go about their life experiences independently. Innovators should look at usability broadly, considering the physical, cognitive and emotional needs of aging users.

  • Easy to See: More than five million American adults have vision loss so significant that they have trouble seeing even when wearing glasses or contact lenses. Millions more switch between multiple pairs of glasses for different viewing situations.
  • Easy to Handle: Solutions should cater to the needs of aging hands, which can be subject to arthritis, tremors, diminished strength and limited tactility.
  • Contextual: Something used in the bedroom or bathroom will have different needs from something used in public spaces.
  • Simple: The aging brain may be challenged to retain new information, which makes it harder to memorize a long list of steps or interpret large volumes of information.

Enable control, not just care: Services like the online grocery shopping and delivery company Peapod and ride-sharing giant Uber help people live life as normal despite limited mobility. There is a vast opportunity to develop solutions that give older users more autonomy and control, enabling them to do more as they age.

Indulge vanity: Just because someone becomes physically disabled as they age doesn’t mean they become aesthetically handicapped. In fact, people exert extra effort to maintain their appearances as they age. A 2015 study revealed that baby boomers and older “matures” plan to spend more than $4 billion dollars this year on anti-aging products and treatments. Many assistive products contradict these efforts. Solution providers who apply strict usability guidelines without imagination create products that condescend to their users and stick out like a sore thumb, labeling them as frail, old and in need of assistance.

Reframe health as a journey: Today’s assistive products for older people are reactionary. People must buy them in response to, or in fear of, negative physical changes. Traditionally, insurance has not covered these products, leaving users to pay out of pocket for something they don’t want. Product developers have employed bare-bones strategies to keep costs down, resulting in ugly, flimsy products that are not well thought out. Everything about this model is changing. Payers now recognize the value of prevention and keeping people out of the hospital. They are willing to invest in preserving their health. Today’s 50-and-over population has more wealth than previous generations, and is more willing to invest their money in quality products.

Help them stay productive: In the past decade, there has been a 67 percent jump in people working past 65. The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College predicts that workers 55 and older will comprise 25 percent of the workforce by 2019. With more people working longer, it’s important that people can succeed and contribute in the workplace regardless of age. Typically this conversation revolves around physical accessibility. For example, BMW recently introduced ergonomic changes to its assembly line, including wooden floors, orthopedic shoes and magnifying glasses to help older workers maintain productivity.

Create connections: Some 43 percent of older adults experience social isolation, putting them at greater risk for depression and mental and physical decline. Solutions that offer companionship and create communities will be sticky as they enrich users’ lives as well as their health.

Build on their values: As family and career obligations wind down for many older adults, it opens new opportunities for them to work toward social causes. Businesses are innovating new experiences that build on socially conscious boomers’ desire to affect their community and environment. The New York Times recently chronicled how the generation notorious for living on communes in their youth is now stimulating demand for “green” retirement communities, where residents work in community gardens and beehives, and operate recycling programs and water-saving initiatives.

Stuart Karten is the principal of Karten Design, a product innovation consultancy that has been designing health care products for decades. He will be speaking at the IDSA Medical Design Conference on Thursday, Oct. 22. This article contains excerpts from Karten Design’s newly released visual white paper, “Design for Aging,” available for free download here. Reach him @StuartKarten.

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