Age Defying

March 18, 2010

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

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.


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. 

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
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

“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.”

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.