Design for seniors needs more nuance, says Design Museum’s The Future of Aging

Birdsong-based auditory monitoring, robotic shopping carts and sleek moving chairs offer an alternative approach to coping with age in this thoughtful exhibit

The Future of Aging, an exhibition at the Design Museum organized by the Design Age Institute. Credit: Luke O’Donovan/The Design Museum

Happy Thought of the Day: Ageing, says Victoria Patrick of the Design Age Institute, is the one thing we all have in common.

She is curator of The Future of Aging, a new exhibition at the Design Museum showcasing projects designed to help people as they age.

“We can’t deny that with aging comes challenges. Design can help us navigate between them,” she says – which is good news for those of us who are beginning to realize we have less. years ahead than behind.

The problem is not so much aging, but society’s attitudes towards aging, she says, pointing to the pervasive stigma associated with it. “So often the narrative is really negative – about loss of independence and decline,” she says, adding “You should be able to feel joy at any age.”

Instead, however, “all roads lead to ageism, with companies failing to respond to market growth or understand its many nuances.” After all, it’s crazy to think that an active 60 year old will necessarily want the same as a housebound 90 year old.

The Design Age Institute is based at the Helen Hamlyn Center of the Royal College of Arts. The center has been beating the drum for inclusive design for years, but as the population rapidly ages, its message has a better chance of hitting the mark. By 2040, a quarter of us will be over 60, the majority fit and healthy and with money to spend. Over-55s will account for 63 pence for every pound spent in the UK over the next few decades. And surprisingly, anyone born today can expect to live to be around 104 years old.

But Patrick thinks manufacturers are missing a trick when it comes to accommodating the needs of the older market, which is often more likely to have more to spend and more time to spend it.

“There’s a lot of demand, but few companies are responding to it,” she says.

All of this may not sound like a barrel of laughs, but it’s actually a small, upbeat and positive display that tackles a very big problem and market opportunity. We start with incredibly active and cool alumni doing the kind of things young people might aspire to but maybe struggle to achieve – triathlons, modeling, DJing.

Gita in action transporting goods, courtesy of Piaggio.
Gita in action transporting goods, courtesy of Piaggio.

There’s the consideration of what’s old – we’re learning that it’s more helpful not to think in terms of numbers when it comes to getting older, but how aging affects you. A handy chart breaks it down into physical, mental, social and economic impact domains. You can be 80 and not be unduly affected in any of these cases. Or 55 years old with dodgy knees that seriously affect your quality of life.

Venture further into the display to learn more about the popular critters of the elderly when asked which household item they would change. Food packaging was the big winner among seniors surveyed, and it’s something we can all empathize with, no matter what age. Who doesn’t hate that stubborn packet of cookies that refuses to open when you crave a snack? But it’s all the more difficult to manage for those with less skilled fingers.

Most of the well-designed display – created to be taken apart and reassembled, and reused with different content – ​​relates to six key design projects, some of which are still in progress. While those in a younger demographic may not be able to personally identify with these, they may very well be relevant to their family members. It’s hard not to smile at the friendly Gita, a mobile cargo-hauling robot companion that moves behind you from store to store carrying your goods, or from shed to curbside, so you don’t have to. to bear the burden. Made by Piaggio Fast Forward, Gita looks like a rounded ball on wheels with a flip-up lid/seat revealing the storage compartment. Those testing it are excited about its companion as well as its potential carrier – one person has even started talking to their robot.

The Hearing Birdsong app is a great idea for those who want to monitor their hearing but don’t want the stigma or hassle of a formal test. Instead of the usual clinical setting, the idea is for people to test themselves at home from time to time to check their hearing level. Created by Kennedy Woods, the test is done via birdsong, which covers the range of sounds covered in conventional tests. When they realize that they are having more and more difficulty hearing the blackbird for example, or the song thrush, it may be time to go to the hearing clinic for a complete test.

  • The Future of Aging exhibit at the Design Museum is designed to be taken apart and reassembled for other locations.
    The Future of Aging exhibit at the Design Museum is designed to be taken apart and reassembled for other locations. Credit: Luke O’Donovan/The Design Museum
  • Visitors to The Future of Aging exhibition at the Design Museum vote for the household objects they would like to see redesigned.
    Visitors to The Future of Aging exhibition at the Design Museum vote for the household objects they would like to see redesigned. Credit: Luke O’Donovan/The Design Museum
  • Gita, a mobile freight robot, on the move in the city, courtesy of the UK's National Innovation Center for Ageing.
    Gita, a mobile freight robot, on the move in the city, courtesy of the UK’s National Innovation Center for Ageing.
  • The Centaur, a two-wheeled, self-balancing personal electric vehicle, courtesy of Centaur Robotics.
    The Centaur, a two-wheeled, self-balancing personal electric vehicle, courtesy of Centaur Robotics.
  • Centaur in action courtesy of Centaur Robotics ltd.
    Centaur in action courtesy of Centaur Robotics ltd. Credit: Chris Reeve
  • Hearing Birdsong app prototype, courtesy of Kennedy Woods.
    Hearing Birdsong app prototype, courtesy of Kennedy Woods.

Another project, Centaur, is still in development but definitely seems to have a lot of potential. Designed by Centaur Robotics for someone who doesn’t always need a wheelchair but wants a mobility aid, it’s a self-balancing two-wheeled personal electric vehicle, much like a Mobile and elegant office chair, narrow enough to fit through the door and with adjustable height so that the user can always be at the same level as those with whom he is standing – particularly good for restaurants. It is also equipped with navigation capabilities and is particularly good at helping people “feel like themselves” when using it.

The overall message of the exhibit is clear: “Now is the time to change this negative narrative of aging,” the exhibit states. “It’s time to say loud and clear that age is not an issue.”

“I hope they remember that they’re part of this story – we’re all getting older,” says Patrick.

More tranches are planned – this is certainly a question that needs to be repeated constantly to get the message across. Patrick hopes that solving certain problems, such as the packaging problem, will gain traction when addressed as part of a larger sustainability issue.

However, perhaps the last word should go to the poster designed by nearly 90-year-old Michael Wolff to illustrate a quote from Mark Twain: Age is a matter of mind rather than matter. If you don’t mind, that’s okay.

The Future of Ageing, until September 11, 2022, Design Museum, Kensington High Street, London

Learn about designing for an aging population with Manchester’s Urban Design Handbook advocating for an age-friendly city, changing demographics requiring building adaptation and understanding dementia

About Octavia A. Dorr

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