The term ‘design for the elderly’ has always annoyed me, partly because if feels vaguely discriminatory and partly because the term the elderly is so imprecise. It also annoys me because the key to all good design is to have an in-depth understanding of your customers and what they want from what you are designing.
So, who are ‘the elderly’?
When I was a 20 something and working in the youthful design industry, we were happy to define the elderly as people in their third age, i.e. over 50. That feels somewhat uncomfortable now that I am months away from reaching that particular milestone myself. Now I realise that very few people I know would classify themselves as elderly. Instead, when I look at myself and my friends, most of whom are in or nearing their 50s, and try to think what they could possibly have in common with someone who is 65, and in turn what they could have in common with someone who is 85, the answer is not a lot. Yet I wonder if this really has anything to do with age.
My cultural reference is growing up in the 1980s where we were all subjected to Cyndi Lauper and Boy George and encouraged to get in touch with our feminine side. My parents’ generation grew up in the 1960s where they were busy being liberated (if not liberal), burning their bras and enjoying consumerism, no doubt instigated by replacing all those burnt bras. While my grandparents grew up in the 40s during the war, mending and making do, grumbling about how they mustn’t grumble.
So, the question is, does the act of ageing change us into a new type of person who wants new things, or will I always like Cyndi Lauper? For me, the answer is definitely the latter. In fact, now that I am much older than the Cyndi Lauper I remember, I like her even more.
The one thing that is true for all of us is that, should we live long enough, we will all be elderly. That is why, when tasked with designing an extra care campus, we have deliberately designed it based on what we would all want, safe in the knowledge that no matter when you were born, you want to be surrounded by quality, beauty, convenience and people who care for you. Hopefully the ‘elderly’ who come and live in our development will like it too, or I shall be there on my own.
Colum Menzies Lowe is partner at BEING, a design management consultancy currently working with a broad mix of private, public and third sector companies. He has been working with Red&Yellow for the last five years on a variety of projects related to their integrated care business.