AD: What are some of the challenges of designing products for older adults?
JC: Technology and aging have been caught in a rut. We consistently ask how we can design this product for an older adult. Then you start to have a whole generation of devices, products and services that have the same symbolic and emotional appeal as a walker or a wheelchair. In fact, we should be thinking about what is cool, desirable, sexy and fashionable. That way, people can start buying these things when they're young, and [the products will be] in place for them when they're in their 70s and 80s.
The biggest challenge is designing for universal appeal. In France, the Renault Twingo was designed for the twentysomething. But the auto industry was surprised to find that older people found it appealing. Most companies focus on the twentysomethings and certainly on teens. But frankly, they are going to be a smaller group of people than those 50 and older.
AD: How should transportation be improved to meet the needs of the aged?
JC: The No. 1 priority is providing a viable alternative to the car in the suburbs. The fact is, the vast majority of people live in the suburbs, 70 percent, or in rural America. And the vast majority of older adults are aging in these places, where there are few public transportation alternatives.
We need to really reinvent and rethink mobility. How do we create alternatives to the car when driving is no longer a choice? We've got to invent something for those who choose not to drive or cannot drive. Right now, we have designed transportation around the journey to work. There is no reason why you could not have the regional shuttle service visible on your cell phone, personal digital assistant or cable TV and have that vehicle pick you up in half an hour.
Today, many older adults have to book a ride 24 hours in advance. Yet there's almost a 1 in 5 chance that the van won't show up. Not having a car, which is essential to going to the pharmacy, for example, virtually maroons you in the very icon of your success â€” your house. That is not life. Going out for a coffee or visiting a friend shouldn't stop when you get older.
AD: What innovations would help older adults live independently at home longer?
JC: We're working on something similar to but more comprehensive than the existing personal emergency response systems. If someone needs help if she has fallen and can't get up, she can now click on a pendant or wristwatch that taps into a support system. Hey, Mom may live alone, but she's really not alone. The question is, how do you bring different service providers together?
We have a vision of virtual service collaborators that bring service providers together in a network that may or may not use the Internet as a base. The innovation is that it would allow companies to offer nutrition with health monitoring, food shopping and emergency services in one complete solution. Devices could guide you in making the appropriate food choices if you're managing blood pressure, or offer telehealth services and a checkup a day. A virtual shopping list would enable you or an adult child to manage shopping needs â€” imagine a grocery store that knows you're running low on rice. These devices would help you stay in your home longer, but also benefit people of any age.
Somewhere in America, seven Baby Boomers will turn 50 every minute. As this generation of 78 million people heads into its golden years, the demand for enhanced quality of life in old age will become all the more urgent.
Unlike its predecessors, this next generation of older adults grew up with constant improvements in technology and services. These Boomers have been catered to all their lives, and that expectation will influence how we age in America, says Joseph Coughlin, who teaches strategic management and public policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). â€œIf you can't drive, does your community offer accessible modes of public transportation?â€? he asks. â€œWho is going to clean your house when you can't do it yourself? Such personal problems will turn into a public imperative if we do not act now, both personally and as a society.â€?
In 1999, Coughlin founded the AgeLab, a partnership between MIT, industry and the aging community to engineer innovative approaches and technologies to help older adults remain engaged members of society. Scientists on one project are developing a lightweight â€œspace suitâ€? for the elderly that will monitor their health and help them move without walkers as well as cushion them if they fall. â€œWhat we're talking about is nothing short of inventing an entirely new lifestyle,â€? says Coughlin. He recently spoke with American Demographics' Sandra Yin about efforts to address the needs of seniors.