In 2045, one in five people will be older than 65. Compared to the past, that's a lot: 11 percent of the world's population was that old in 2009, and just eight percent in 1950. At an Atlantic event on Thursday, designers and policy experts took a few hours to dream: How can technology potentially make life easier and more comfortable for the growing population of older folks?
The most awesome answer: Bring back the trike. "Could somebody please design a really sleek, cool tricycle?" asked Linda Gibbs, New York City's deputy mayor for health and human services. "To get on and off a two-wheel, ten-speed bike—as you get older you get less inclined to want to do that. But a really hot tricycle would be great."
Even though Gibbs was being playful, she was addressing an important question: As cities make changes to meet the needs of fit, able-bodied adults, how can those over 60 also get some of the benefit? Especially in New York, where the number of bike lanes is growing rapidly, this has been a big issue for policymakers like Gibbs, as well as for urban planners and designers. To some degree, these new bicycle accommodations symbolize how urban design and new technology tend to be aimed at the young.
But some people are imagining ways to change that trend. Eric Baczuk, a senior interaction designer at Frog in Austin, Texas, shared some of his firm's wildest elder-tech dreams, designed for people who want to remain at home as they age (instead of moving into an assisted living facility, for example). Although none of their ideas are in production or on the market yet, some of them are pretty cool.
Baczuk's team asked seniors a bunch of questions about how they prefer to use technology. A lot of them said they felt basically the same about smart phones and flip phones; they like tablets better than smart phones; and, if given the choice, they would totally use a traditional touch-tone phone.
It might be easy to dismiss this as old-fashioned, or as fear of the unfamiliar, but the Frog team looked for design lessons. The touch-tone phone is simple and easy to understand, because it has just one purpose: calling people. The keys are easy to feel and use, even if someone has poor vision. And there are specific physical movements that correspond to its use: You pick up the receiver, you dial, you put down the receiver when you're done talking.
The phone is particularly important because, for a lot of seniors, social isolation is a huge problem. Especially for those who live far from family and don't have access to a close community of friends, the Frog team believes, social interaction through technology is important.
But a lot of seniors don't or won't use the Internet, Baczuk said. So he and his team imagined a way to translate the concept of video-conferencing to a form that might fit better into seniors' lives.
The old version looks like this (note the dominance of the grandkid pictures):
And one day, a new version could look something like this: a life-size, window-like "portal" through which people could see each other in their kitchen or family room.
And it would shut like a window, too.
Another cool idea was to use every family's favorite picture repository, the fridge, to help older people access apps normally found on a phone or tablet. The fridge is also a default storage space for notes about doctor's appointments, schedules, and other important reminders—this could help with that, too.
...plus app-like magnets...
It's possible that these products and others like them will one day be part of everyone's kitchen, but the motivation beneath them is thought-provoking: With a few design tweaks, it might be possible to help seniors who want to stay at home feel more connected to their communities—in ways that make them feel comfortable.