Age Defying

Understand the emotional side of aging in place
By Erin Gallagher
March 18, 2010

In the words of Wall Street wizard Bernard Baruch, “To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am.”

Growing older and its impact on everyday activities in the home are a fact of life that many aging people do not want to face. To many baby boomers in particular (typically defined as those born between 1946 and 1964), renovating living spaces to accommodate challenges associated with aging is irrelevant because it impacts "old people"—and they most certainly do not consider themselves to be in that category.


There is a great deal of emotion tied to the concept of aging in place. In a study exploring the impact of aging in place on kitchen design, the level of denial on the part of older consumers is clear. “It is essential for designers and marketers to be sensitive to the emotional aspects of aging,” said N. Riley Kirby, the chief of research for the Research Institute for Cooking & Kitchen Intelligence (RICKI), the firm that conducted the study. “The consensus among designers participating in our study is that most clients prefer a state of denial to a state of preparedness. People don’t want to admit they’re getting older and that at some point they may not be able to get around their kitchens as easily as they do now if changes are not made.”

That’s one of the key findings that emerged from The Golden Years: Aging-in-Place in the Kitchen, a project that was designed by RICKI to gather insight into how designers and manufacturers might address the unique needs of this population segment in the home kitchen. As a first step, RICKI conducted a half-day focus group and ideation session with 10 consumers aged 65 to 74. Then it followed up with a group of a dozen professional kitchen designers to further explore the ideas and concerns expressed by consumers and to find out what designers are hearing from aging consumers. To qualify for the project, designers had to have already designed kitchens for clients aged 55 or older and/or disabled or special-needs clients in the past three years. In addition, qualified designers also had to have recommended products designed to address aging-in-place issues.

During the session with senior consumers, several of them told stories about people in their lives who are even older and who refuse to acknowledge increasing limitations due to aging. “A 70-year-old man worried aloud about his 90-something parents who steadfastly deny their diminishing abilities and the potential dangers associated with it,” noted Kirby. “The man said he has asked his parents to stop using a step stool to reach high cabinets in their kitchen.  Their response was essentially to tell him to mind his own business. He said they don’t want to admit they shouldn’t be doing some things at their age.”

This attitude is prevalent despite the statistics on the dangers. According to the International Fall Prevention Institute, 70 percent of accidental deaths of Americans over the age of 75 result from falls. Yet even at 90-plus years of age, many people don’t want to change the way they do things—or even compromise on design.

To address this challenge, designers emphasized throughout the study that products made for aging-in-place use in the kitchen should be functional and address the older person’s needs, but aesthetics must not suffer. Kitchens that appear to have been modified to accommodate an elderly cook or others with physical limitations are not appealing to clients of any age, according to both consumers and designers in the study.


Other common themes woven throughout the discussions with both senior consumers and kitchen designers relate mostly to accessibility and simplicity. For example, as it relates to accessibility, older people often have trouble bending, reaching and lifting, and need kitchens designed to address these challenges. Most also experience declining vision, requiring larger type and better lighting. 

Improved lighting can also have psychological benefits.“Many older clients deal in some way with loneliness and in turn sadness," said Jean Stoffer, a Chicagoland designer who participated in the study. "Natural light is a big help emotionally.” Stoffer tries to put the area of the kitchen used most by the cook by a window, saying she will “forsake all kinds of cabinets if there are walls available for windows” in the homes of older clients.
bath project, design ideas
Moreover, simplicity, in the minds of senior consumers, primarily equates to products with fewer bells and whistles, which they view as “just things to get broken.” As Kevin Briggs, a Boston-area designer put it, “I think a lot of [new] products are accepted more by younger clients, but older clients feel there is too much to go wrong with them and prefer simpler products.”


Some marketers dismiss baby boomers as a declining segment that is no longer buying consumer durables, including appliances, and whose buying power has diminished as a result of the economic downturn. Many consider 18 to 34 year olds their "sweet spot."  Yet according to McKinsey Consulting, boomers account for about a quarter of the population but almost half of the country’s purchasing power.   

“Designers and kitchen-products manufacturers must understand that our older population is growing at a fast pace—more than three times faster than those under the age of 65—and this generation remains far more active, status-conscious and affluent than previous older populations,” said Kirby. “To appeal to these folks requires understanding how they think and tailoring products and messaging that resonate with them. The key is to think differently with an eye out for new ideas and rethink old truths.  But above all, avoid designing products that look like they are for ‘old’ people.”

—Erin Gallagher is Chief of Insights for the Research Institute for Cooking & Kitchen Intelligence (RICKI), an independent, membership-based organization of manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers and publications whose revenues come from sales related to activities that take place in the kitchen, including kitchen remodeling. For more information, visit www.kitchenintelligence.org.

Methodology: The Golden Years: Aging-in-Place in the Kitchen was conducted in multiple stages over the course of several days among two segments.
• Senior consumers (65 to 74 years old) who participated in a half-day focus group/modified ideation session designed to gather "pain points" participants have experienced in the kitchen and generate ideas for improving existing products. The session was held on June 4, 2009 at RICKI headquarters in Charlotte, NC, and involved 10 seniors.
• Professional kitchen designers in 12 cities across the country participated in a one-day online bulletin board discussion that took place on June 30, 2009 and a one-hour web and phone focus group/modified ideation discussion the evening of July 21, 2009. To qualify for the project, designers had to have designed kitchens for clients aged 55 or older and/or disabled or special needs clients in the past three years AND recommended products that might address aging-in-place issues.
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