How Fixing Ageist Attitudes Can Help Seniors Get How Fixing Ageist Attitudes Can Help Seniors Get Things DoneThings Done

Designers deserve a lot of credit for making products, tools, and homes that are safer and easier to use than ever—unless you’re a senior. In that case, you may struggle to tell your shampoo from conditioner in the shower, because the nearly identical labels have tiny lettering. Likewise, you may be overwhelmed by the digital medication dispenser your daughter sent you. The result is that many seniors create their own workarounds and tools to make daily life easier. A growing number of designers have seen this and are looking at ways to fix ageist attitudes and help seniors get things done safely and in style.

Building seniors’ needs into the design process

Experts say part of the product-design problem is that seniors’ needs and mobility levels aren’t always considered. It’s human nature to assume our experiences are universal, so the 25-year old packaging designer who has no trouble reading tiny print may not realize older people may struggle with it. It’s also because there’s an insight gap between what designers think being older is like and what it’s actually like, which leads to a mismatch between products designed for seniors and the seniors themselves.

A new wave of product designers and teachers is trying to get young designers to think like older adults so they can create more useful products and tools. Professor Glen Hougan at Canada’s Nova Scotia College of Art and Design Studies has made “designing for dignity” his research focus, based on his experience caring for his mother.

Houghan’s presentation on ageism in design points out the ways that negative stereotypes of seniors lead to ugly and hard-to-use products. He also makes several recommendations for designers and design programs to do better, including

  • Teach designers to be aware of senior stereotypes
  • Raise awareness of the diversity in lifestyles, daily habits, and ability levels of seniors
  • Connect one-to-one with seniors to gain their perspective
  • Redefine “senior products” to include adaptive pet-care, hobby, and leisure activity items
  • Make products for seniors look good
  • Seek out intergenerational design collaboration

Houghan’s ideas can help seniors get more out of daily life as designers start implementing them.

Seniors’ DIY fixes for everyday hassles

In the meantime, resourceful seniors and their families have developed countless DIY solutions to everyday issues. A New York Times column on senior product workarounds had dozens of commenters chiming in with tips they and their parents use, such as

  • Replace round interior doorknobs with lever knobs that are easier to grasp
  • Use lazy susans anywhere you have trouble reaching items toward the back of a shelf, including in bathroom cabinets and in the fridge)
  • Use a long-handled grab bar to pull out oven racks without risking falls or burns
  • Add pipe insulation to household items or walkers that need padding to prevent hand pain
  • Use your tablet or smartphone camera to photograph small print and items, then enlarge the picture to read it (ideal for when you don’t have a magnifying glass handy)

Workarounds can help you enjoy independent living, but if you’re doing a lot of them, it’s a good idea to talk to an aging-in-place specialist for feedback and safety suggestions. You can also pick up tips for senior health and safety on the blog.


Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.

1 Comment

  1. SteveC November 9, 2016 Reply

    Shampoo and conditioner bottles are an excellent example of things that can be hard to read when the shower is on and your glasses are off. Two other items that I find troublesome: menus and web-pages. I firmly believe that neither should be inflicted upon the general public until they are reviewed for useability by somebody over 70 who has cataracts and wears bifocals!! 🙂

    One way seniors can be proactive is to first raise the issue and then volunteer to be on product review panels, or to test websites prior to their release. This won’t always happen,, but much better to be part of the solution. It’s also a great way to make new friends and help younger people do their jobs more effectively.

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