Ageing is ordinary. But somehow it’s thought of as special. Policies, buildings, places, and products have a side-bar for older people. These side-bars are separate and special policies, places to live, places to go and things to use. However, older adults want ordinary designs that work for them as well as others. It’s what gives a sense of inclusion and belonging. This segregation and stereotyping is not good for health. What older adults need is more universal design.
Peter Snyder is an advocate for universal design across products, services and built environment. In his article he explains the impact of “specialness” on the health and well-being of older adults. Stereotyping is particularly damaging. Some stereotypes are obviously not true, such as older people can’t deal with technology. But that doesn’t stop people from perpetuating them and that includes older people themselves.
When older people complete a memory test after reading that older people have impaired memory function, they perform more poorly than those who didn’t read the material. And the reverse is true. A positive statement brought about an improvement in the memory test. Snyder adds that if cognitive decline was a basic human trait, it would be seen across all cultures. However, this is not the case.
Snyder’s article argues that our beliefs about the ageing process have a significant impact on our wellbeing in later life.
The role of designers
If and when we need a product to help with a daily task, why does it need to be a special one? And why does it have to be purely functional with no aesthetics considered in the design? Too many functional products are clunky and ugly. It’s why people shun such products such as walking canes and mobility devices. It’s depressing.
By definition, stereotypes are rarely, if ever, true – even positive ones. But used as positive feedback it can work. But not by citing such things as “older people are wiser”. It is done by creating services and products that are inclusive so that age becomes irrelevant. This is why older people need universal design.
A good article showing the unintended consequences of ageist stereotypes on health and wellbeing and what designers can do about it. The title is, Universal Design as a Paradigm for Providing Health Interventions for Older Adults.