Last week, one of the fluorescent tubes, hidden behind a decorative panel at the top of my kitchen cupboards, burned out for the first time since I moved here last May. To remove it and see what I needed to buy as a replacement involved climbing up a too-short ladder onto the kitchen counter and, hanging on to that decorative panel – lightly in case it is not well-attached - peering over the top.
I cannot say I was frightened. At nearly 70, I have not noticed any balance difficulties. But I am aware that my legs, nowadays, don't have the springiness of youth and I didn't want to risk what might happen if, due to a mis-step in the awkward standing space, I needed to jump to the floor to keep from falling.
So I moved up, then down carefully and slowly.
I recall being furious when I first heard the baby boomer anthem “50 is the new 30” which, some say, was coined by AARP – blast them! Nothing could be further from the truth.
You can eat well, exercise, get plenty of sleep and still, in time, joints will stiffen, muscles will tighten, eyesight and hearing will fade to varying degrees and short-term memory lapses will give you fits. (Why am I standing here on the kitchen counter?) If you live long enough, it will all get worse. That is the nature of aging and it doesn't help any of us to deny it.
It is no secret that age demographics have been shifting upward for years. By 2050, the 60 and older population will grow from about 12 percent today to about 20 percent. Yet age is so abhorrent to the culture in general that business, manufacturers, retailers and advertisers have ignored the life realities of this growing market.
That may be about to change.
On Saturday, both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times published stories indicating that business is beginning to see the light – that is, realizing there is money to made from elders.
At my age and sensibility, I find it irritating that both articles make a big deal about how important it is, in targeting an older market, to camouflage the accommodation being made to old people's needs so not to insult baby boomers by indicating they are old now. But I'll take the improvements any way I can get them.
First, some out-takes from the Journal:
• “Surreptitiously, companies are making typefaces larger, lowering store shelves to make them more accessible and avoiding yellows and blues in packaging - two colors that don't appear as sharply distinct to older eyes.”
• “Depend has introduced gender-specific versions and briefs with fashionable prints that imitate regular underwear. Some Depend packaging is labeled "underwear" and disguised to look like packs of cloth underwear.”
• “Sherwin-Williams...has subtly redesigned its 3,400 stores to make them more comfortable to older browsers. They now have more lighting and seating and serve coffee in most locations. Product displays feature less fine print, hence fewer squinting shoppers.”
• “After noticing older shoppers struggling to read its cat-litter packaging, Arm & Hammer began sharpening the color contrast for the text and gradually increasing the font size, which is now about 20% bigger than it was five years ago.”
• “Diamond Foods Inc. carefully engineered the packaging of its Emerald snack nut line to accommodate the declining agility of baby boomers' hands.”
• “Walgreen has introduced easier-to-open packages on its private-label painkillers and incontinence products, and expanded its vitamin aisles.”
The Times' story takes a more empathetic and long-term view of the business opportunities presented by elders starting with the MIT Age Lab aging suit officially known as AGNES or Age Gain Now Empathy System that helps designers create or modify products to the benefit of elders.
The newspaper produced this little video of the reporter, 45-year-old Natasha Singer, trying it out.
It is not just everyday products that are being designed with elders in mind, but overall, daily livability. There is a project here in Portland, Oregon, reported on in the Times story, that is testing home health technology and concepts that will help elders live longer independently than in the past.
Volunteers are testing these concepts at Mirabella, a high-rise, luxury building outfitted with new aging technology that,
“...conveniently located next to Oregon Health and Science University, enables residents to stay as healthy, engaged and socially connected as possible...
“...wireless motion sensors, installed in their apartments, track their mobility and, by extension, their health status in real time.”
Some other technologies include a wireless pillbox that reminds residents to take their medication, fall prevention sensors and an experimental robot that provides a variety of services.
This is an expensive proposition, although as the idea grows, costs should come down. But according to Eric Dishman, the global director of health innovation at Intel, there is a snag:
“Because of ageism, Mr. Dishman says, many retailers aren’t ready to make space for such products and many companies don’t even want to develop them.
“'Life enhancement technology for boomers is a chicken-and-egg problem,' he says. Is 'the market going to take the first plunge, or are companies going to create technologies without knowing whether we can sell it?'”
Meanwhile, lacking a robot to help, I am now going to climb up on the kitchen counter again – slowly and carefully - to install the new tube.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ralph Lymburner: Discrimination