A New Perspective: Design Thinking for the Elderly
This post is the first in a series of articles focused on design thinking and aging. In future posts, we will explore the use of personas in designing solutions for seniors. We will also address problems identified by seniors themselves.
Last week, the ACCESS Health Singapore team attended a DesignSingapore forum titled Rethinking Health and Wellness for the Elderly. Among the fresh perspectives and opinions shared at the forum, one point really stood out to us: Often, designers who design products for seniors view seniors as isolated individuals. In reality, the elderly live and interact with others in their families and communities, such as family members and health professionals. They engage others in their external environment multiple times throughout the day: when getting coffee, seeing their neighborhood doctor, seeing specialists at hospitals, visiting community centers, going to the supermarket, and even through online sites and discussion boards. Behind these interactions, or touchpoints, lie many higher level entities that share an active interest in the wellbeing of the elderly, such as ministries or charities.
This learning point came from applying design thinking and ethnography to aging. One principle of design thinking is that all design activity is social in nature. Ethnography aims to explore social phenomena from the point of view of the subject, in this case seniors. At the forum, videos were shown of interviews with various seniors and their caregivers. These seniors and caregivers were asked what challenges they faced in daily living. Beyond these answers, researchers also followed the seniors on their daily activities, like cooking and exercising, in true ethnographic fashion.
In one clip, a frail senior was shown cooking for himself. His legs are weak so he sits on his wheelchair at the stove. But this position is often low and awkward. Upgrading to an adjustable height chair could make cooking easier for him.
One woman interviewed in the video had left her job to care for her father full time. Even while providing fulltime care, she said, there are moments when she cannot be there, physically, to catch her father if he falls. Such personal examples peppered the forum, turning abstract issues into real and moving stories.
When we think of the people, places, and organizations seniors interact with, many opportunities come to light. One senior featured in the video had lost his leg to amputation due to diabetes. After being fitted with a prosthetic, he still found it tiring to navigate his neighborhood. He told the interviewers that he was truly glad to receive a motorized personal vehicle from a welfare organization. Some limitations remain. Narrow corridors and places without ramps are inaccessible to him. However, he is now able to take public trains and go shopping, everyday tasks that would have been nearly impossible before. The motorized vehicle has improved his quality of life. In this case, an organization found a solution that has allowed this senior to engage more with the people and places around him.
Engaging ethnography and design thinking for the elderly may seem unconventional. But some researchers acknowledge the benefit of taking into account social and environmental aspects of aging. A recent BMJ article reviewed existing ideas and concepts of Successful aging refers here to physical, mental, and social wellbeing in older age. The authors found that traditional conceptions of successful aging focused largely on individual bodily health. For example, the Activities of Daily Living scale tests a senior’s ability to complete a basket of self care tasks. These tasks include feeding, toileting, and grooming.
The authors found in their review that psychosocial and external factors are important to successful aging too. Yet, the authors found that these factors are underrepresented in traditional models of successful aging. For example, the Activities of Daily Living scale does not measure social activities such as holding a conversation or enjoying a sport outdoors. The authors wrote, “[Successful aging] is clearly not simply a physiological construct, so it seems intuitive that psychosocial components should be included in otherwise biomedical models of [successful aging].” The authors concluded that conventional models for aging can benefit from including social and external components of seniors’ lives.
Design thinking and ethnography can be applied at all levels of the ecosystem surrounding seniors. Consider seniors, the people they interact with, the people and places they engage with, and the organizations that help support them. Imagine a senior living out a typical day in this environment. What gaps and opportunities do you see? Are there any potential collaborations between organizations? We feel these added perspectives will help craft more targeted, efficient products and solutions to help seniors.