Elder design

Simplifying life for an aging population

Dan Headrick
6 December 2017

4 min read

Working to reshape the world for a rapidly aging global population, designers and engineers are learning to apply the concepts and technologies of their fields to address the clouding eyes, aching bodies and broad life experiences of the elderly.

Modern design reflects the fact that today’s designers and engineers are being asked to do something remarkable: retool the world for a rapidly aging global population, and do it on a tender and personal level.

From easy-open pickle jars for arthritic hands to accessible parks and cities that promote social interaction, bright young designers are learning to look at products, buildings, transportation networks, communication grids, open spaces and community structures from an older person’s perspective.

The need is great and growing. Due to falling birth rates and longer life expectancies, the world’s percentage of elderly people – defined by most demographers as those 65 and older – is rising dramatically. According to the World Health Organization, the number of people over the age of 65 is expected to triple from 524 million in 2010 to 1.5 billion by 2050. For the first time ever, people over 65 outnumber children under five. The elderly also represent the fastest growing demographic segment worldwide.


Technologists and policy planners have started to act. For example, to help guide design for the aged, engineers at Nissan, Ford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed old age “suits” that simulate the physical infirmities of an 85-year-old, complete with cloudy vision, stiff joints and wobbly balance. Experiencing the physical effects of age helps engineers better understand the needs of the elderly.

1.5 billion

The World Health Organization expects the number of people over the age of 65 to triple from 524 million in 2010 to 1.5 billion by 2050.

Even new technology is getting the elder-design treatment. While the elderly have tended to adopt new technologies at a lower rate than the general population, that trend might be changing. A report on technology use among seniors from global think tank Pew Research Center found that some segments of this group – especially among the more affluent and educated – are using digital technologies at a higher rate than typical for past generations.

For example, smartphone ownership among people 65 and older has doubled since 2013 in the United States. In the Netherlands, at least five insurers reimburse users of smart home sensors, which monitor indicators such as changes in gait that could give advance warning of a fall. Amazon’s voice-controlled digital assistant Echo answers questions, calls relatives, controls appliances and even reads the news. On-demand online services deliver groceries, medicines and rides to the doorstep of otherwise home-bound people.


“Over the years, I have learned to put myself in place of the user I design for,” said Sahar Madanat Haddad, founder and chief designer of Sahar Madanat Design Studio in Amman, Jordan. “This comes from first understanding the user, being attentive to their needs, spoken and unspoken, and studying their day-to-day life. It’s simply designing with empathy. When it came to designing for the elderly in particular, the first thing that we noticed is that most elderly do not want to use products that look assistive.”
Her latest product, a household emergency response kit to perform CPR and defibrillation, looks like a stylish, rolled pad that is, according to the product concept, “As simple as a pillow and a blanket, and as familiar as tucking someone in!”

Similar efforts are popping up worldwide. Sha Yao, an industrial designer who graduated from Soochow University in Taiwan with a degree in Japanese language and culture, created a spill-proof tableware set for Alzheimer’s patients. Students at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Islamabad, Pakistan, have developed a cloud-linked, wearable Tremor Acquisition and Minimization (TAME) glove, which suppresses wrist tremors that can hinder the performance of daily activities.


Products are not the only items getting a makeover – living environments are, too. In 2016 in the UK, for example, government and National Health Service officials announced plans to build 10 completely new towns with 76,000 senior-friendly homes throughout England. In the Netherlands, residents at the revolutionary Hogeweyk dementia care facility live in a village with shopping and parks designed with architectural features that replicate diverse, yet familiar, cultural references to experiences common to its residents.

That same concept is being tested in the United States at an Alzheimer’s facility in San Diego, which replicates a 1950s-era town square. The facility was designed to stimulate memories and conversations among its residents, who are reminded of their youth by the carefully curated surroundings.

Inspired by her experience as a caregiver for her grandmother, Sha Yao created a spill-proof tableware set for Alzheimer’s patients. (Image © Sha Yao)

Singapore, which has one of the world’s fastest aging populations, has embarked on an ambitious program that is becoming a model for other cities. The multi-pronged, comprehensive plan features more than 70 initiatives across a dozen segments, including health, education, employment, volunteerism, financial security, housing, transportation, public spaces and social inclusion. Moreover, the initiative addresses a multi-cultural population with four different official languages, whose citizens observe a wide array of holidays and traditions from different cultures.

“An interesting thing about designers is that they are encouraged to think outside the box and be creative,” said Ellen Do, a professor of Architectural and Industrial Design at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). Do also is co-director of the Keio-National University of Singapore’s CUTE Center (Connective Ubiquitous Technology for Embodiments), and has worked for the Singapore Active Aging Council.

“They (designers) would learn all the techniques and tools – materials, geometry, perspective such as bio-inspired design, sustainability, efficiency, high-tech, low-tech, 3D printing, parametric modeling, human-centered and ergonomic centric.”

But, the challenge for young designers today, she said, is developing empathy for the elderly so that they can create tools that help older citizens navigate the world in innovative ways. “You can teach people techniques, and how to use the tools, but the important thing is about generating insights, being able to evaluate, to reflect, to understand the users and be in their shoes.”

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