Designing for an ageing society

One of our VOICE® members, Ros Wilson, guest authors a #NICABlog to share her thoughts on innovative design for healthy ageing.


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Why bother involving older people in design? What can we tell you that you do not know already? Well, if you suffered from arthritis and your fingers had lost the dexterity needed to use a keyboard, imagine how easier life could be using speech instead, to communicate with your devices. That dream has already been realised and may not have been aimed at that specific group, but user input like this can draw attention to difficulties experienced by some and can turn into achieving better outcomes for many. Good design can be good for everyone, without stigmatising those in older age. However, this example does not come without a barrier. There are cost and timescale implications in development of complex designs.

I have been privileged, with other members of VOICE®, to be invited to participate in panels and workshops seeking to help people age healthily and keep living independently longer, and I have contributed to and witnessed how the inclusion of older citizens’ views have improved the development of ideas aimed at benefitting healthy ageing but also in preventing further development of ideas that either older people would not or could not use. Why, for instance, do we not see a greater variety of mobility vehicles, or even tricycles on our roads? Is it perhaps because although many would benefit from them, they highlight that their users are ‘old’, and those who are ‘old’ do not want to be stigmatised as being ‘old’? Of course, as we have pointed out to inventors, the downside of the development of any mobility aids is also that their use, if not entirely necessary, may cause more health problems than they solve for older users, through lack of exercise.

Neither do we accept restrictive and ageist concepts that, for instance, wrongly suppose older drivers are a danger to others on the road. Statistically, they are not. Older drivers have less accidents than younger drivers. They avoid rush hours, congested roads, and generally drive shorter distances and we know that cars can be a lifeline to accessibility and avoiding isolation for many.

Individual experience in earlier life helps the judging process too. Some years ago, I was a lay exercise instructor and I have been pleased to contribute my experience to projects. For instance, that rhythmic music can help dementia patients to remember the routines from one session to the next and have praised projects that promote ways of regaining confidence after falls and seek to resolve constraints that stop many older people from taking part in exercise.

I am often surprised at the stereotyped and ageist views expressed by both applicants and expert members of panels in projects, particularly of older people’s perceived inability to use digital devices. The problem is that repeated stereotyping often prompts the behaviour of older citizens becoming what society expects of them. Older people do use modern technology such as smart phones, computers, wearables, and remote-controlled devices, but how, and how often, they use those devices now may be quite different from how they used them in their working lives, and without regular use, expertise is lost. Could this perhaps be resolved simply by better signage or clearer and simpler instructions?

With experience of care homes, we have been able to recommend that applicants obtain the goodwill and input of care home employees and carers first, if their proposals involve their help. Carers’ time is often already stretched to the limit and they may not have had the background or training to be of assistance.

One recent advance in technology that has helped me personally is hearing aids equipped with blue-tooth technology. Hearing loss happens gradually and if ignored can cause sufferers to start withdrawing from social activities and public places, which can lead to isolation and a serious deterioration of health. This innovation not only allows me to have clearer hearing, but also telephone calls, music, and other digital sounds arrive directly into my ears. However, as these do not come cheaply, they are not available to all. Yet probably millions of older people could benefit from them.

Apart from age related hearing loss, I am a healthy ager. Could that be because I exercise every day and eat a Mediterranean style diet? Or could it be because I have done that for years and years and years? I know as an exercise instructor that healthy ageing does not happen overnight, whereas many projects, while well meaning, come in at a stage which might be too late. Issues of ageing caused by a poor lifestyle cannot be solved with a quick fix. Targeting a younger age group might achieve a better outcome for healthy ageing.

Areas of concern that have been stressed by other panel members include the loss of privacy caused by the possible placement of cameras around their homes, albeit there to check their wellbeing and worry about who receives the information from wearables, or gadgets, which track their movements, no matter how good the intention.

So, what does this do for me and other lay panel members? Being involved in these panels, and in VOICE® opens new avenues of thought and provides us with insight into cutting edge research and innovation. Listening to often quite different expert views on these panels, and the inspiration, but also constraints, of projects proposed by applicants, broadens our worldview. I hope to remain involved and engaged in these panels, seeking slick, not clunky, innovative designs. What we older members bring to the table, is that we have the experience of being older. We have experienced the stigma, stereotyping and ageism that can hold us back from demanding equal treatment in good design and production of products and systems that suit our needs and abilities.