I recently had the opportunity to be one of the judges for the Stanford Center on Longevity’s “Innovating Aging in Place” Design Challenge. Design students from around the world submitted ideas for improving the quality of life for seniors, and the breadth of their ideas was astounding: mobility devices, virtual reality communication technology, apps, wearable health monitors, etc. It got me thinking about how dramatically the prospect of aging has changed in the last century. Not only has life expectancy increased by 30 years, most people these days say they don’t even feel old until they are in their 80s!
Today, we have so much information about using design to support active aging. My grandmother’s life, for example, would have been markedly different had I been able to influence the home and community in which she lived during her final years. This is what I’d say to her if she were still alive:
Happy Year of the Rooster! I wish you were here to celebrate with me and the kids. It’s been 15 years since you left us but I still think of you as a fearless role model, years ahead of your time. I remember when you were thinking of moving because you were tired of everyone’s meddling, so you handled it all yourself – you didn’t even tell anyone your new address until you were completely settled in, complete with a new black leather couch! I love how you used to lace up your sneakers every day to explore the city by foot, even going to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by yourself, just to see what the fuss was about.
I’m an interior designer now, and I’ve learned so much about how design can improve people’s day-to-day lives as they get older. I wish I’d known then about the simple modifications I could have made in your home: adding tasteful handrails that look like chair rails in the hallway, pulling out the shag carpets and refinishing the wood floors, painting the walls a lighter color so they contrasted more with the floors, and getting new lounge chairs with shallower seats and stronger arms.
If we’d had the sensor and wearable technology then that we have today, we could have helped you manage your medications, track your blood pressure, and communicate better with your doctor. With a tablet or smartphone, you could have stayed in touch better with your friends and with us. And just imagine being able to check the weather or play your favorite music with a simple voice command, without having to get up.
I’m trying to stay up-to-date with the latest in designing for active aging so I can help other seniors continue to lead productive and independent lives, even when they’re dealing with chronic conditions. There are lots of resources out there now, including this great toolkit from ASID. I think that if you were alive today, the former biology teacher in you would be fascinated by how we’re marrying science and beauty in today’s spaces. With science that backs up beauty, we’re designing spaces that are both visually stimulating and highly functional. Miss you and think of you often!