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How design can improve old age

How design can improve old age

As life expectancy grows, more people are struggling with the problems of ageing. An exhibition in London shows how good design can help

As life expectancy grows, more people are struggling with the problems of ageing. An exhibition in London shows how good design can help

Amalia Illgner | February 8th 2017

His big eyes seem to smile as you stroke his furry head, his whiskers twitch when you tickle his tummy, and his flippers flap when you say his name. Paro looks like a baby harp seal, but he’s actually a robot designed to help people with dementia. Covered in soft white synthetic fur, Paro (designed by AIST, a Japanese firm) responds to light, sound, temperature, touch and posture. He provides sensory, cognitive and social stimulation to reduce the stress and anxiety that afflict many dementia patients. Around 5,000 of the gizmos are in use in nursing homes and hospitals around the world, mostly in Japan, but increasingly in Europe and America too.

Paro is one of the star attractions at a new exhibition at the Design Museum in London. “NEW OLD: Designing for our future selves” looks at the ways designers have tried to enhance our experience of old age. Life expectancy in Britain, as in many developed countries, has increased across almost every social and ethnic group. Over the next 25 years, 70% of the population growth in Britain will be in the over-60 age group, and by 2040, one in seven people will be over 75. The Office of National Statistics predicts that in 100 years’ time there will be more than a million centenarians in Britain.

But there seems little point in celebrating living longer if those extra years are no fun. “Where we live…and how we support ourselves, and the quality of our lives as we age, represent the key questions that every society must address,” says Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum. According to Sarah Harper, a professor of gerontology at the University of Oxford, housing is the most important element to get right. 

Seamless Front and back views of Amazin Apartments

One of the more conceptual exhibits in NEW OLD is Amazin Apartments, an idea of what supported housing could look like in the future, designed by Frederic Raetsch. Appliances – including a washing machine, a fridge and a water-cooler – are built into walls backing onto a hidden network of corridors, organised like a warehouse. These corridors are staffed by people ready to refill the fridge (according to the preferences and income levels of the householder), put a month’s supply of laundry powder into the washing machine, and adjust the heating. The appliances themselves are designed to have two sides: the customer-facing side, which, with little more than on/off switch, is built to be as simple as possible; and the service side, where the more advanced functions are available. The concept is similar to old-fashioned stately homes, designed so that the owners were blissfully unaware of the servants working behind the scenes. 

Practical and desirable A scooter for life?

Getting out of the house is also fundamental to a high quality of life. But after the age of 70, the distance we travel drops significantly. Traditional mobility aides can be ugly and unwieldy. Priestman Goode, a design and branding consultancy, wanted to make an alternative. Their prototype is both practical and desirable – and is designed for all ages, not simply for the very old. “We came up with a list of boxes it had to tick: you had to be able to take it on a bus, into a shop, an apartment or a house and there needed to be space to store groceries”. The motorised “Scooter For Life” looks like a sophisticated version of a child’s scooter; its front basket resembles a stylish piece of luggage and it has an optional seat. Built-in GPS logs regular routes and unsteady sections of pavement and the designers plan to incorporate a “Take Me Home” function so that people with dementia could be safely transported back to where they live.

Alexa for the aged Beautiful enough to be shown off

Loneliness often blights old age. While email, video-calling and social media are great ways of combatting it, many older people lack the skills (and sometimes the inclination) to use new technology. ElliQ is a user-friendly solution to the problem. It is a voice assistant with an inbuilt screen that is beautiful enough to be displayed on a sideboard. The result of a joint venture between Intuition Robotics and Yves Béhar, a Swiss designer, it uses artificial intelligence to help its owner keep in touch with friends and family, and to stay physically and mentally fit. It suggests books to read, remembers birthdays and can fire up a Skype call. It also reminds its owner when to take certain pills and encourages them to go for a walk after a prolonged session in front of the television. The device will be trialled in the San Francisco Bay Area later this month.

You can also imagine it being a moneyspinner for its designers. A study in 2015, conducted by Saga and the Centre for Economic and Business Research, showed that over-50s account for 47% of all consumer spending in Britain (around £320bn a year), up from 41% in 2003. Businesses have a strong incentive to fund innovative design, and with governments increasingly strapped for cash, their role in spearheading research and development is more important than ever.

NEW OLD: Designing for our future selves Design Museum until February 19th

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