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Designing for the Future of our Aging Society

Designing for the Future of our Aging Society

“The New Old. It’s a bit of a puzzle. The aging process takes longer, and is short on easy answers. One-size-fits-all design doesn’t work.” IDEO, Designs On – Aging.






Longer life expectancies, low birth rates, and an aging Baby Boomer population are making seniors the fastest growing age group in Canada. This demographic transition will definitely affect our economy, labour force, and health care resources. However, local and global organizations are gearing up to meet this challenge through initiatives that are based on prolonging the quality of life among seniors. Many of these projects include digital technology, which has become a part of life for many – including seniors, especially those under the age of 75.


Along with the aging population, Montreal’s ascendency as a smart city positions it as North America’s potential “Silver Valley”, according to a recent article that discussed Le Quartier de l’iinnovation’s pilot project for seniors, which will result from collaborations between stakeholders such as end-users, their caregivers, entrepreneurs, and research groups to create high-tech solutions for the emerging “silver economy”.


As well, January's Hacking Health Café event focused on geriatrics, aging, and technology and featured projects from entrepreneurs, scientists, and clinicians that could prevent falls through sensors, assess involuntary tremors with smartphones, and create smart spaces using the Internet of Things.


It appeared that many of these projects highlighted the importance of “aging in place” or living near one’s geographical and social community as an older person rather than institutional settings such as care homes. The Baby Boomer demographic will be resisting many assumptions about aging identities and will especially concerned to age in place for as long as possible. The World Health Organization (WHO) is responding to these needs with its Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities project (with Canada as a participant) to support the creation of urban environments that will enable seniors to lead healthy and active lives, and continue to contribute to their community. Transportation and housing are similarly expected to undergo major transformations, most likely with the incorporation of universal design features and smart technology, to help accommodate the needs of older people.


The Grey Mirror by José Colucci. Empathy tool enabling young people to see (and plan for) their future self, and to relate to elders around them.

These initiatives represent an exciting moment because they are based around a more inclusive definition of “health”, which is not only about fighting disease as a patient, but concerned with prevention, self-sufficiency, and community interactions as a person.  

These projects can only be successfully executed with careful collaboration as gerontology is inherently a multidisciplinary field. Input from members of various health specialities, design, and technology – and certainly the end-users themselves – will be needed to create meaningful solutions.


The global design firm, IDEO, which adopts a human-centred design approach, addresses issues experienced by aging populations around the world. Since 2013, they have benefitted from the services of a 90 year old consultant, Barbara Beskind, a lifelong designer and former occupational therapist who saw IDEO’s David Kelly speaking on television, saying: “That’s the hard part of the culture, having a diverse group of people and having them be good at building on each other’s ideas”. After hearing this, Barbara realized that this was a company she wanted to work with. From that point on, Barbara has been sharing her experiences and expertise on projects in motion – and has also created her own prototypes emerging from needs which she identifies as a senior. In the true spirit of human-centred design, these IDEO products are not only made for users, but conceptualized by users themselves.


That an unprecedented demographic shift is taking place cannot be denied, but local and global organizations can look ahead and plan for the long term to help make for a smooth transition. While doing that, it is worthwhile to reflect on a few considerations:


It may be difficult to plot for a typical user, especially with seniors. A recent Globe and Mail article points out that longer life spans and medical advancements with diseases such as cancer and heart disease means that seniors are more likely to suffer instead from dementia and depression, which are not always immediately visible and also manifest themselves differently.


As seniors engage more with high-tech design solutions, what may be some of the unintended consequences of more smart living spaces, remote monitoring, and so on? How to prevent seniors who are already less mobile from becoming more isolated? What about those who do not want to use digital technologies?


Improving the quality of life for seniors does require collaboration from players across various sectors, yet the public health sector has traditionally been slow to change. How might the convergence of an aging population and digital technological solutions be catalysts for change in health care?


Thinking through these questions may depend on initiating a deeper change – namely a shift in attitude to acknowledge the experiences, knowledge, and needs of seniors in an increasingly youth-oriented society. Not every senior citizen is a Barbara Beskind, but her story signals that now is the time to adopt a change in perspective.

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