Designing for aging

I've had an instructive almost-three-days with my mother this weekend. She's 96 and lives independently in her own flat with no household support beyond a young woman who comes to clean her place for 2 hours once every two weeks. She seems to do well enough in an environment that she's used to. The Tesco metro is across the street, she is close to bus stops, the temperature in the house is set to maintain a steady agreeable warmth, and so on.

Nevertheless there are things she can't do well: open screw top jars, change light bulbs, bend to get things from the bottom of the fridge, walk outside without the aid of a cane or a walker, see small print, or hear in the presence of any background noise.

She wanted to visit Ireland where she was born. And that's what we did. Although I have spent time with her traveling (we went for the weekend to Paris last year) this time I was acutely aware of the design aspects of aging and started to wonder about this for both older people in the workforce and for older people who have left the workforce.

At the start of the UK's 2010 Parliament a briefing paper noted that '10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old. The latest projections are for 5.5 million more elderly people in 20 years' time and the number will have nearly doubled to around 19 million by 2050.

Within this total, the number of very old people grows even faster. There are currently three million people aged more than 80 years and this is projected to almost double by 2030 and to reach eight million by 2050. While one-in-six of the UK population is currently aged 65 and over, by 2050 one in-four will be.'

This type of profile is reflected in much of Europe, Japan, and the US. It has significant consequences for public services and for healthcare.

The UK briefing paper explains:

'Much of today's public spending on benefits is focussed on elderly people. 65 per cent of Department for Work and Pensions benefit expenditure goes to those over working age, equivalent to GBP 100 billion in 2010/11 or one-seventh of public expenditure. Continuing to provide state benefits and pensions at today's average would mean additional spending of GBP10 billion a year for every additional one million people over working age.

Growing numbers of elderly people also have an impact on the National Health Service, where average spending for retired households is nearly double that for non-retired households.'

Within the workforce a paper by ACAS The Employment Relations Challenges of an Ageing Workforce again talking on the UK workforce concludes, 'There has been much discussion about the significance of engaging and retaining older workers. However, there is little evidence of UK employers taking proactive steps to achieve this goal. With the removal of the default retirement age (DRA), changes in state pension age and the continued ageing of the workforce this is set to become an increasingly important organizational issue. If the UK economy is to fully benefit from the skills and experience of its older workers, a larger proportion of organisations will need to adopt age management policies and practices which are effectively communicated to their workforces.'

The situation is similar in other countries as David Bloom and David Canning, report in their HBR blog How Companies Must Adapt for an Aging Workforce. Their conclusion is that 'In designing the organizations of the future, the private sector -— with appropriate public-policy support -— should anticipate, rather than passively await, this trend toward longer lifespans and older employees. While some adaptations lie on the more distant horizon, others can be undertaken right now, to the benefit of both younger and older employees -— and of the company itself.'

It seems that there are many challenges inherent in this whole aging population thing and it's difficult to boil them down. But this weekend has thrown into relief two questions for me:

  1. How do I keep myself working for as long as possible in order to a) financially support my mother should she, at some stage, need more care than she can afford b) financially support myself predominantly from my own resources when (if) I get to a post-paid-employment era?
  2. How can designers make functional living easier for people who are aging to retain dignity, respect, and independence as they age?

Take the first one related to the older workforce. This means rethinking all kinds of fairly standard traditional workplace policies including working hours, career paths, performance standards, space and equipment adaptations, skills development, and a host of other expectations around management, expertise, and cultural norms. Some companies are making great strides here. The US AARP has a program (two year intervals) to identify best companies for older workers and there are often fun profiles of 'oldest workers'. But, as yet, these are the exceptional companies.

Take the second question – designing for functional living. There is a body suit called AGNES developed by the MIT age lab that younger designers can wear to feel what it is like to be elderly and a similar one called the Age Man Suit. 'Consisting of ear-protectors that stifle hearing, a yellow visor that blurs eyesight and makes it hard to distinguish colours, knee and elbow pads which stiffen the joints, a Kevlar-jacket-style vest which presses uncomfortably against the chest, and padded gloves, the Age Man Suit, which weighs around 10kg, has been custom-made to simulate the physical consequences of old age.'

I can see my mother with all these symptoms except she is not wearing a suit. That is her life. I've watched her struggle in an unfamiliar environment for three days:

  • Signage is small or unreadably placed (airline departure displays)
  • Doors are too heavy to pull or push open
  • Outside surfaces are uneven making falls likely
  • Stairs don't all have railings or grab rails
  • Public announcements are indecipherable
  • Meal portions are too large (and she is denied the kids' menu one because she is not under 12!)
  • There is insufficient public seating in many places (walkways into the airport terminals for example).
  • Car doors don't open wide enough to swing legs around comfortably
  • Restaurant lighting doesn't allow for menu reading

And the list goes on. I didn't think to check whether our accommodation had grab rails in the shower, or self-controllable heating, or an elevator to the floor her room is on. (No it didn't have any of these). I am keeping a note of things like that now.

So what am I concluding from the brief research, observation, and my own experience?

  • I must use my organization design and development skills to encourage employers to look at innovative workforce policies regarding a broader age range of employees.
  • In working with architects and designers I need to be encouraging them to remember they too are aging and will experience gradual failings in sight, hearing, balance, and muscle strength. Given the predicted workforce demographics they should design workplaces with this in mind.
  • On the basis that one individual can make a difference I will start lobbying for specifics – like passenger assistance from London Heathrow's bus terminal into the check-in area. At present it is only available from the check in area to the aircraft.

Are you aging? What workplace or design improvement would you like to see? Let me know.