Not on the high street – but why?

If you were to need something you’d never bought before – something related to getting older and a bit less supple – where would you go to find it? Maybe Amazon, or a mail order catalogue?

Searching ‘aids for physical independence’ – the generic term for those things we hope we’ll never need but almost definitely will – either online or on the high street, is a dispiriting task.

A casual glance at existing websites reveals a marketplace dominated by a handful of big players – largely servicing the NHS and carers. Those few sites that are specifically aimed at the end user can be bewildering. They offer huge selections of ugly, cheaply made products (reproduced across countless factories in China) at inflated prices. This ‘pile it high’ principle inevitably results in confusion for the consumer.

It seems there’s a general ‘it’ll do’ mentality in this sector, where in many cases the products aren’t up to an acceptable standard either in terms of quality, design, or even functionality.

So why are the needs of the older generation not adequately addressed by manufacturers, online or on the high street?

The huge market in age-defying products is telling. Anti-ageing creams, vitamin supplements, youthful fashion and wellbeing apps are all readily available. Products designed to alleviate or ease the ageing process – walking sticks, support cushions, ergonomic kitchen aids – not so much. Helpful and practical products remain hidden on the back shelves of larger pharmacy chains, in Sunday supplement advertisements, or in drab mail order catalogues.

Thirty years ago the baby care industry languished in a similar backwater. Only basic, utilitarian products – maternity ward carbon copies – were available. Then came the high street revolution and baby products were re-invented – vibrant, playful, practical and in keeping with modern living.

Surely it must be time for a change at the other end of life.

The population is ageing fast, as we keep being told. We will live healthier lives for longer. We don’t expect to die within a few years of retiring, even though retirement comes later and later. So we are more likely to need products to make being older more comfortable: myriad ways of keeping warm; lights that really help improve your vision; support and posture cushions. You may need rails to fix to your walls to hold on to, or mobility help, be it a stick or a rollator.

While millions are being invested into assisted living and retirement villages in the UK, it appears there is little trickle down effect into product development and design for things that make life easier as we age.

Some designers are bucking the trend. The founders of Eyra collaborated with Sebastian Conran to produce a range of ergonomic kitchen utensils designed for weak or elderly hands. Arthr has developed some excellent designs for bathroom products – notoriously hard to make even remotely appealing. Hitch Mylus have a range of armchairs designed by Sir Kenneth Grange, now in his 80s, specifically for the older generation. When asked about his design Sir Kenneth responded A degree of infirmity encourages you to make almost anything better from a user’s point of view”.

Dr Chris McGinley, an award winning designer at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design says the issue is not a lack of effort in the elderly sector. Many beautifully designed products do exist, but they are often deemed not commercially viable, and don’t make it beyond prototype.

Georgie Lee, from the Design Age Institute – specifically set up to address the needs of the older generation – has conducted extensive surveys and come to some conclusions about why this is. ‘No one,’ she says, ‘likes to be defined by their age’. Not teenagers, not Gen X or Z, not the middle aged, and not the old either. Everyone knows they will be old one day – just not yet – however old they actually are. The undeniable ageism in our country is a societal issue – it’s deeply embedded here in the UK, but not in every culture. Both Georgie Lee and Chris McGinley agree that the stigma of ageing, while slowly waning, is still a factor. The very words are unsexy: mobility, independent living, ageing, aids…

So how can we get the products we will probably all need to be well designed and attractive? Our kitchens don’t have industrial catering equipment, after all. Why should our houses end up looking like hospitals?

The solution seems obvious – inclusive design for all ages and needs. To design well for everyone, according to their needs. The stigma attached to ageing is bad enough. Why should it cling to the products we’ll all end up using?

In 1990 OXO rethought the traditional, knuckle-bleeding tools of culinary tradition, and released its Good Grips line. To this day, their equipment is the best articulation of the potential of inclusive design: originally developed for people with arthritis, Good Grips have thick rubbery handles that are better for everyone to use.

Georgie Lee tells us that the Ford Focus was originally specifically designed as a car to suit the older driver. When marketed as such, it bombed. Rebranded (but unchanged) as the perfect small runaround for anyone, it became a bestseller for buyers of all ages.

The online shop Granny Gets a Grip has already got there. The strapline makes it clear that it is ’inclusive design for all ages’. It took a while for the founders to realise that younger people with mobility issues, or those who might be recovering from an operation would all benefit from good product design. The founders, Miranda Thomas and Sophie Dowling don’t define themselves as old (not just yet) but have found that many of their products are already helpful to them – without shouting infirmity.

Once the concept of universal inclusive design becomes the norm, everyone will benefit.

The baby boomer generation are now reaching old age and with a track record of lobbying for change at every life stage things may well start to look different. Let’s hope so.