What Does It Mean To Be Old? Products Geared Toward Older People Are Hit-Or-Miss

Nov 18, 2017
Originally published on March 27, 2018 1:16 pm

When people create products designed with older folks in mind, the same mistake is made over and over again. Businesses tend to jump to conclusions regarding products older people may need, that is: equating age with disability.

As Joseph Kaufman, founder of the AgeLab at MIT, puts it in his new book, The Longevity Economy, businesses are more focused on helping older adults "stay alive" rather than "live their lives." According to Kaufman, companies are relying on an incorrect story about who older consumers are.

"It's a narrative that says we're old, we're frail and by the way, we don't like anything new. And as a result we don't make things that excite and delight," Kaufman says.

The older population is growing and has a strong spending power. One in five people in the United States will be 65 years or older by the year 2030. In 2015, people over 50 years-old spent $750 billion more than those under 50.

With flawed design and marketing tactics, some businesses have missed the mark attempting to appeal to our older population.

Here are four products included in Kaufman's new book, ranked from "Bad" to "Great" for old people:

BAD: "Senior Foods"

Basically, baby food for older folks. It was geared for people with tight budgets and bad teeth. According to Kaufman, it looked gross and tasted gross. Plus, at the checkout line, it announced to everyone you were old, broke and had bad teeth. Unsurprisingly, no one really wanted to buy the product.

GOOD: Arthritis-geared products

Manufacturer OXO Good Grips designed a peeler and various other kitchen tools for people with arthritis. It turns out, however, that these products are comfortable and appealing for many people, even if they do not have arthritis.

GOOD: Tablet computer

As Kaufman says, a tablet computer is a great device because it can be personalized. Although the older generation may not be a tablet's target audience, it has still been successful with this population.

"Without my glasses, I can't see my hand, let alone the text in front of me," Kaufman says. "But the tablet that I use allows me to use my fingers and to jack up that font so that I can see it. It is not a device that yells: 'Old man who can't see.' It is a device that is so profoundly personalized, that it allows me to use it at any age."

GREAT: "Champagne popper"

Two cousins developed this device for a champagne-loving neighbor, whose arthritis was preventing her from getting the cork out and enjoying her favorite beverage. They developed a device that was a curvy wrench with a long handle.

Some people, like NPR's very own Ina Jaffe, have never been able to open a champagne bottle. Jaffe says she is "looking forward, for the first time, to drinking some bubbly on New Year's that I have opened myself."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Think of a product that's designed with older folks in mind.

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SIMON: Well, if the first thing that came to mind was one of those buttons people are supposed to press after they've taken a spill, you might have made the same mistake that many businesses make when they equate age with disability. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging. She joins us now for a segment we call 1 In 5 for the one fifth of the United States that will be 65 years or older by the year 2030.

Ina, thanks very much for being with us again.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Always good to be back with you.

SIMON: So what are businesses doing wrong?

JAFFE: Well, they're more focused on helping older adults stay alive then on helping them live their lives. That's the way Joseph Coughlin puts it. He's the founder of the AgeLab at MIT. And he wrote a new book called "The Longevity Economy." He says companies are relying on a story about who older consumers are - and the story's wrong.

JOSEPH COUGHLIN: It's a narrative that says we're old, we're frail and, by the way, we don't like anything new. And as a result, we don't make things that excite and delight.

SIMON: So give me an example of a product that might just be totally off.

JAFFE: (Laughter) Well, there's one spectacular failure that Coughlin writes about. It was called Senior Foods, sort of like baby food for older folks. It was geared for people with tight budgets and bad teeth. Apparently, it tasted gross and looked gross. It also announced to everyone in the checkout line that you were old, broke and had bad teeth. So not surprisingly, no one wanted that.

SIMON: Yeah, that doesn't never winner written all over it. But of course, businesses want to make money. Right? They must be leaving a lot of money on the table if they can't figure out how to sell to older consumers.

JAFFE: Oh, absolutely. Here's just one statistic. In 2015, Americans over 50 spent $700 billion more than Americans under 50.

SIMON: Wow. Does that include public radio memberships?

JAFFE: Oh, gosh, I hope so.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: All right. Are there examples of products that people have designed that have worked for older consumers?

JAFFE: Sure. And if you want to see an example, go look in your kitchen drawer when you get home. I bet you find a can opener or a vegetable peeler or something by a company called OXO Good Grips. Now, these were originally developed to make it easier for someone with arthritis to use their kitchen gizmos. But it turns out these things are comfortable, and they've been appealing for everybody. There are also products that work for older adults even though they weren't necessarily the target audience. Coughlin says that his personal favorite is his tablet computer.

COUGHLIN: Without my glasses, I can't even see my hand, let alone the text in front of me. But the tablet that I use allows me to use my fingers and to jack up that font so that I can see it. It is not a device that yells, old man who can't see. It is a device that is so profoundly personalized that it allows me to use it at any age.

JAFFE: And Scott, you know, I have a new personal favorite thing designed for older people. It's called the ChampagnePopper. And it does what it says it does. And two cousins developed it for a Champagne-loving neighbor whose arthritis was preventing her from indulging in her favorite beverage because she couldn't get the cork out anymore. And so they developed this thing. It's sort of like a curvy wrench with a long handle. And here's the reason I like it. I have never been able to open champagne bottles, so I am now looking forward - for the first time - to drinking some bubbly on New Year's Eve that I have opened myself.

SIMON: Oh, Ina, you have a lot of years to make up for - lost time.

JAFFE: (Laughter) I'll just keep popping those corks.

SIMON: NPR's Ina Jaffe, thanks so much.

JAFFE: You're welcome.

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