Aging, particularly in affluent countries, is often inaccurately associated with physical and cognitive decline. A perspective that views aging solely as a period of decline fails to see the incredibly diverse range of older adults today and their varied and vitality-filled approaches to aging. In our recent book, The Future of Aging, we delve into these approaches, based on robust foresight and an ongoing collaboration with SE Health, an organization dedicated to helping people live and age well at home. Our study was supported by in-depth interviews with industry experts from health, finance, technology and community-development initiatives across North America.
We recommend that companies build new narrative frameworks around aging that recognize the diversity of lived experiences of older adults today. These individuals are increasingly vibrant, culturally savvy and have unique needs and desires. To succeed in helping older adults create the lives they want to live, companies and organizations must compose services and technologies around the trends and shifts we uncovered. We grouped our findings into the categories listed below. These areas provide insight, foresight and entry points that will help businesses appreciate today’s complex, rich and diverse experiences of aging, while also encouraging the inclusion of older adults throughout the design process.
“Community” in the context of aging too often means “nursing home” or “retirement facility.” It’s time to rethink those associations. New living arrangements, community models, systems of care and social spaces are emerging for older adults. We examined these developments from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. We also explored emerging spaces and models for homemaking, healthcare and what it means to live well. We believe that informal systems will come to play an important role in supporting healthy aging in a person’s community and in providing people with agency to “live in place” and “thrive in motion.”
Our research indicated that the current emphasis on biomedical interventions as the key to life extension and health management is misguided. The view of aging-as-decline often paints older adults as dependent on healthcare systems — whereas our findings show that many of these individuals are capable of actively shaping their personal health narratives. Less formal, more local approaches to care are emerging. These approaches treat individuals as people, not patients, and will help them control and manage their own unique approaches to living well as they age.
Many products and services aimed at aging adults emphasize physical and cognitive deficits and seem to reduce aging adults to “patients in decline.” Our research revealed that older adults are engaging with new and emerging technologies in unique ways. These technologies help them maintain independence, restore and manage their health, and build and maintain new social connections. We looked at what might be technologically possible in the future, balanced with what individuals may ultimately desire as they shape their own experience of aging. It’s crucial that older adults participate in the design and development of technologies that are aimed at them, whether for medical assistance or social and entertainment uses.
Our research challenges long-held assumptions about work, spending, retirement planning and investment. In brief, older adults in affluent countries across the world will account for half or more of all consumer spending growth in the next few decades. Organizations across industries must rethink how they are addressing the needs and desires of these consumers. Older adults are profoundly engaged, passionate and opinionated consumers. Serving them well means setting aside the rhetoric of burden, decline and dependence that is often used to describe this group. We must reduce the ageist, linear ways in which society tends to view life stages and long-term planning to help better understand the economics of aging in the future.
Persistent ageism shapes the way that many people understand and engage with older adults. Where institutions and organizations may have static ideas about aging, we found that older adults have increasingly fluid concepts about their bodies, minds, relationships, sexuality and mortality. We see these individuals as reframing aging, not viewing it as a problem to overcome, but as a vibrant, vital process to be embraced. As older adults look, think, feel and behave in new ways as they age, we expect new cultural norms to emerge and influence what it means to age in the future.
Older adults are design partners, meaningful collaborators who can and should be part of the design and development of services, products and technologies. Here are two recommendations that can be applied to any service, product or technology that a company designs with older adults.
Older adults navigate a wide range of physical, psychological and emotional experiences, both within and outside their control, that make them a unique consumer group. While companies should stop forcing them to adapt to technologies designed for millennial minds, bodies and capacities, it’s also important not to underestimate the capabilities of older adults. The key is to collaborate with them to invent design languages and practices that see them as unique, but not inferior to, other consumer demographics.
Don’t assume that older adults only — or even primarily — require solutions for physical and cognitive decline. Embrace the richness of what it means to age well by taking seriously the complex shifts in, among other things, how older adults define their wellness needs and their personal, professional and sexual identities. See the aging process as one of many narrative entry points for designing better and more meaningful futures of older consumers.
Our goal for developing The Future of Aging was to create a resource to help organizations design better possible futures for aging adults. We learned that aging is not a linear process and everyone has a different experience of aging. Organizations across industries must account for the diversity of culture, experience and ability that defines the aging population. That requires long-term collaboration between aging adults and the companies designing products and services for them. This collaboration should treat long life as the incredible accomplishment and privilege it is and result in inclusive, helpful tools and solutions that enable individuals to fully live, enjoy and celebrate their later years.
This article was written by Cameron Murray, resident anthropologist, Idea Couture. For more on designing for better health outcomes, read Designing for the Lived Experience of Chronic Illness and From Wellness to Living Well: Design Strategies for Composing More Livable Futures.