Products for aging boomers should work for everyone

Senior Life

Decades

May 23, 1999|By Gaile Robinson | Gaile Robinson,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Every 18 seconds, another baby boomer turns 50. Even though their AARP cards are in the mail, don't you dare call them "old."

Half of them are facing some form of arthritis. They say it's no problem -- don't you dare call it a handicap.

Boomers are not the first to put a happy face on aging. It seems to be the American way.

At least 80 percent of their parents have at least one chronic condition, yet a third of them assess their health as good or excellent, according to the Statistical Handbook on Aging Americans.

This attitude is causing economic confusion. Manufacturers are perched on a heap of products and expensive research aimed at the aging population. But they are in an advertising quandary. How do you market products to the old without addressing their age?

To be successful, you don't.

In the early '90s, Fiskars, the scissors company, developed spring-loaded scissors specifically for people with arthritis. The design proved beneficial for children and people who had trouble with fine motor skills.

Fiskars' new product, called Softouch, was billed as easier to use. It was not singled out as a product for old people and clumsy children.

According to American Demographics magazine, Fiskars sold 10 times more Softouch scissors than company officials expected to in the first year.

Emphasizing a product's ease is the passkey to $25 billion, the amount the 55-plus crowd spends in a year, according to the American Association of Retired Persons.

Some products aimed at the senior crowd languish on back shelves. Others are never produced for lack of advertising direction.

"How to market has been the stumbling block all along," says Ellen Goldsberry, a professor at the University of Arizona. In 1995, she completed a measurement study of 7,000 women older than 55 to establish a pattern size for older women.

Large merchants such as Sears and L.L. Bean helped fund the study that documented an extreme change in a woman's physiology as she ages -- shoulders round forward, causing the pitch of the neck to change. This stance makes backs broader than chests. To add to the indignity, bottoms flatten, tummies pooch and waistlines thicken.

A few small companies are trying to capitalize on the new patterns, but not particularly effectively, Goldsberry says, and large manufacturers are still dithering.

The aging population has not been ignored by car manufacturers, either. While the designers at Chevrolet are blasting out some extra interior room, they're also enlarging the lettering and knobs on the instrumentation panel.

"We know that when people age, the controls, door handles and seat belts have to be addressed [by designers]. With a touch of arthritis, people can't grasp and turn things as well," says Dick Ruzzin, director of brand design for Chevrolet cars.

"When they tell us 'I can't turn the radio on. Those knobs are too small,' a lot of work is done as a result."

Ruzzin says he does not think the design changes will separate the boomers from the Gen-Xers or an even younger audience; they will only separate more customers from their money.

"Every product that is designed well for a mature market is designed well for the younger market. You can't make something too easy to use," says Margaret Wylde, a specialist in the needs af older people and owner of the Oxford, Miss.-based company ProMatura.

Accessibility, or the concept of universal design, is what is driving much of today's product design.

A lever door handle, for example, is much easier to use than a doorknob. It doesn't take an adult-size hand, a firm grip or wrist flexibility. It can be used with an elbow or a cane. Children, adults, people with their arms full of grocery bags, or hands gnarled with arthritis can operate a lever with ease.

A lever door handle is an example of universal design, a 22-year-old term coined by product designer Ron Mace.

Universal design is often lumped with products for the disabled, and although it is true that the disabled benefit from universal design, so do small children, old people and people with limited range of motion, vision or hearing.

All people fall within those parameters sometime in their lives, says Mace.

At the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Mace and a group of architects and designers have redesigned thermostats, vacuum cleaners, gardening equipment, faucets, can openers and microwave ovens to universal design principles.

A more humane thermostat has buttons the size of ones used on large-button telephones. It lights up, it speaks and the whole shebang can be operated with a remote control.

Simple changes -- jacked-up appliances, lowered light switches, widened doors and grab bars -- can make a house easier to use for multiple generations and abilities.

"A grab bar is a Band-Aid for everybody," says Wylde. "We've got to realize it's a safety device. I can't tell you how many older adults will say, 'I'll get one when I need one.'

"Of course, it's not until after they've broken their hip that they'll get one."

Pub Date: 05/23/99

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