Gretchen Addi : “If you design for older adults, then you design for everyone”

“The generation that is aging is one of the largest generation ever, at least in the United States and in most of the developed world, the boomers. As those people are pushed out of the market place, the next generation is much smaller. There is not enough people to fill the jobs in most of the developed world. The dynamic is going to shift because our populations are not growing as fast anymore. There will be more elders than youngsters. And if you’re not leveraging those elders, who’s doing the work? ”

Gretchen Addi is an American designer working on aging and longevity. (Oldyssey)

Gretchen Addi is a designer and a consultant working on aging and longevity matters, she was one of the VP of IDEO, the famous design agency, helping organizations to adapt to aging. When we met in San Francisco, she talked to us about the opportunities linked to the demographic transition and how to inspire change toward a senior-friendly society.

Adaptation of the society to aging: how would you describe the current situation?

With aging we see somewhat the same thing happening than with sustainability. Obviously now, sustainability, green building and all of these issues are a priority but at the beginning everyone said “interesting but more a nice-to-have than a must-have”.

In the aging space, we’re still trying to figure out where the market is and many companies don’t see it as a priority yet. We’re in the early stages, I don’t think we’ve reached the tipping point yet in terms of making the kind of changes that really are necessary for a population shift in demand.

Adaptation to aging is a large-scale requirement, because a larger proportion of our population will be over the age of 60. And that’s not just a trend, that’s going to be the way forward, because we’re giving people the opportunity to live longer. This really requires more massive change in our social system and in all aspects of our life, because age touches everything, whether in education or in retail or in the government…

Big change is hard but we have to think differently, and accept what the data and the numbers very clearly have said for a long time. Demographics are very predictable but a lot of those systems or markets still are defined by old models that really don’t apply anymore.

What are these old models?

For example, the social security in the United States, the model was designed many years ago and was based on the promise that people would live until 70–75. So, if you started to collect social security at 65 and you only lived to 75, the business model worked. But if people are living to a hundred, things shift all of a sudden, and that model perhaps isn’t sustainable anymore.

And if you look at things like education, it’s not enough to just go to college as a young person and come out and have a career and follow that career across your lifespan. People are realizing that they have many careers in them, there are many stages potentially. They have to become more adaptable, continue to learn across their lifespan, but colleges and universities are not set up for that. Market and economies have to evolve to match with the changes that are going on and that have been driven by science and technology.

Is a change of mentality necessary?

We have to change the conversation, age is not about decline and we have to stop framing it that way. We need to have a positive approach because we’re all living longer and we want that to be quality time not quantity time. It is also about bringing humor and creativity. Research has shown that as we get older we get happier, and there’s a scientific way of explaining it. But we don’t talk about this. We don’t celebrate the fact that many people are more creative as they age. These people have a tremendous amount still to give, to participate, still to mentor, to do all start of things, it’s kind of a loss to economic opportunity.

To hopefully create opportunity, we have to engage business, cities, government to work together. It is very much a public-private partnership. Right now, there is a lot going on in the public space. There are cities that understand the demographics and say “okay, we need to have a plan”. Those kinds of activities are happening but not fast enough.

What will be the tipping point?

If some of the big companies (Amazon, Google…) that are not necessarily already in the aging marketplace really step up, others might follow, particularly companies appealing to younger markets. Today they’re still afraid that it will brand them in a different way.

We still live in a very ageist sort of culture, it is still ok to make fun of older adults. If you look what happened recently with the “me too” movement, companies are very conscious to make sure they won’t say anything that would offend. But somehow it is still okay to offend old people. Pushing that another mentality to the market side, will be a big shift.

Has the aging space really understood what is at stake?

I’ve always been very frustrated about the more established businesses that have targeted older adults for a long time mainly because I think they didn’t design with older adults, and because I think they haven’t really leverage design in what they do. For example, take senior living and products for older adults who are losing mobility and need help with certain activities and daily living. They quite often take on a very institutional, very functional role. Products like walkers or cane, in many cases they’re still very ugly, and actually, they’re very bad. Walkers are terrible, not even solving the problem, they keep you stable but they make you more and more dependent on them.

Senior living is creating these very isolated communities within a community, they have not reach out or connected with a larger community but sort of build walls around, they don’t understand it’s not very natural to just live with people of your own age. You have places where folks are out of decision, they eat when they’re told to eat, they’re not engaged in creating the food themselves. I’m sure some people love living there, but I’m sure that the fact there’s only one answer is There needs to be choice. And there need to have opportunities to be able to leverage those living environment in different ways. The fact you can’t move around you’re locked in to one place, yet the provider has facilities in 50 states. It doesn’t make sense. The fact that you are not connected to the community in which that facility is in some way, not just bringing the schoolkids to sing to the older adults. Those old paradigms have to change. Most people want to stay at home, but that’s not an option for everyone. Our culture has taught that our independence is what we are supposed to achieve, when in reality that’s sometime hurting us. People are socially isolated, and older adults are marginalized, and as a result we have a lot of challenges like homeless older adults. What we should be teaching ourselves is interdependence. We all need each other. Community is really important. And yet, everyone still want to age at place, even if it’s bad for them.

Which sectors are the most advanced?

Some sectors are waking up to the opportunities. Financial services are one of the first, the conversations are shifting from retirement to talking about “how to I make my money last if I’m living so much longer and rethinking retire”, thinking about also the generations involved, looking at resources across generations, as opposed to just financial services with focuses on the individuals, at least in the United States.

Real estate see this opportunity that people don’t want just to go and live with older people, they want to live across the generation, in a more natural way. They start to think that maybe living together is not about age but about interest, about particular desires that people have.

In retail, there is a lot of conversation about older women. In fashion in particular, we see older women that are starting to represent brands. I’m hoping it’s not only something trendy. Obviously, there are reason for that, older women have a lot more money and can afford some of those things, but also it does begin to challenge the paradigm that beauty is just in youth and begin to change that conversation.

How to inspire change?

One of my favorite phrases is from IDEO, the design agency where I worked. “Start small until big stories emerge”. Use design thinking to come up with new approaches, prototype them and start at a very small scale, but with the idea that what you’re developing and building is a prototype that can scale larger. Anyone can be a designer.

Concerning aging design thinking requires to design with older adults as opposed as for them. Too much has been done even with good intentions to design for older adults or for people as they age, and even with these good intentions, quite often this missed the marks. Design thinking really pushes the idea that you need to engage older adults in the design process and design with them to get to better solutions. It is good because designers design for everyone, and if you design for older adults, you design for women with children, or people who have limitations. That concept of universal design can really help many business to think differently without specifically targeting an age market place. Understand what’s in their life stage, with their passions and desires, how do you create products, services and experiences accordingly. That is probably equal valored for them than for other generations.

What about technology?

Quite often the approach is “We have this great technology; how can we adapt it to solve things?” It’s a little bit backwards. The first thing is to go to people. What do the people need and how can technology solve that as a tool? Technology is valuable, but it’s a tool, it’s here to enable something to happen, to solve for something.

When we talk about design thinking there’s 3 interlocking circles: desirability, which is the people, the human side of it, there’s the feasibility of it, the technology piece, and the viability, the business, is there a business here ? The intersection of those 3 makes something viable. But the point with the design thinking is you have to start with the people. Because if you don’t have a need, then why do you design it. When you design in an aging marketplace, you absolutely have to start with the desirability.