Design & Shopping: Older but groovier

Today's 'New Old' are a formidable force - and designers are rising to the challenge. By Bridget Bodoano
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The Independent Culture
By the year 2010 it is estimated that nearly 50 per cent of Europe's adult population will be over 50. The "New Old" of today are healthier and fitter than previous generations, more interested in travel or bungee- jumping than in quietly settling down to enjoy their twilight years. They are also style-conscious, demanding and discriminating: they have become accustomed to the availability of good design and see no reason to lower their expectations just because their arthritic fingers don't hold the cappuccino cup as confidently as they once did.

Although youth culture maintains its high profile, the design, media, advertising and marketing worlds are all waking up to the fact that the over-45s hold the greatest proportion of wealth in Britain; consequently their needs and demands are being addressed more enthusiastically than ever before. Today's "New Old" want products that will help them cope with problems associated with growing old, items that do not draw attention to their owners' special needs and can be used (and desired) by all.

There are already some such products on the market, among them the Good Grips kitchen implements, utensils and garden tools designed and produced in the US for the elderly or those with restricted hand-movements. With their chunky good looks and reasonable price they sell at great speed. More such products will be available soon as design-education establishments - ever keen to guide new designers into profitable areas - are setting projects aimed at the elderly and disabled.

The resulting designs provide elegant solutions to a variety of challenges from easy-to-open packaging to sophisticated communications equipment. However, the real challenge is to place these products in the mainstream, appealing to all. They also need to be produced in viable quantities to keep costs down.

DesignAge, an organisation with a remit and slogan "design for our future selves", was established in 1991 to pursue the challenges of designing for an ageing population. Based at the Helen Hamlyn Research Foundation at the Royal College of Art, it has run a competition each year for students from all faculties to design objects, images, systems or environments that take into account the lifestyle, needs and aspirations of older people. Zimmer frames and stairlifts are nowhere in sight - though they may well get a rethink - but concepts for jam jars, cutlery, china and glassware, furniture and even yachts abound.

A device from last year in which manufacturers have shown interest is Stephen Brittain's colourful easigrip carrying aid, which transfers the load from the hand to the wrist, therefore aiding anyone with limited grip or dexterity. It has yet to go into production.

Among the winners in this year's competition was an idea so simple you will surely soon have several of these in your own home. "Pull the plug" by Martin Bloomfield consists of a plastic strip that slots over the pins of an electric plug, forming a handle and thus making plug removal very easy. Plugs with moulded handles already exist, but are expensive to produce and can be difficult to rewire; these plastic strips can be produced for a few pence each; in the future, electrical items could therefore be supplied complete with plug and "pull the plug". Incorporating colour, graphics or Braille is easy, and the potential for personalised strips, or ones with safety warnings, corporate identities and advertising is limitless.

Another winner, Hilary Primett, a ceramics and glass student, came up with the sensuous Massage Wash Mat which consists of a rubber mat covered in "fingers" contoured to cup the head and accommodate the neck and back. It attaches to the bath by suction cups and is aimed at those with impaired mobility in the shoulders and arms, those who suffer from tension in the neck and shoulders, and "anyone who enjoys a relaxing bath".

The first prize was awarded to Lotta Vaananen for Rise and Shine - sunlight for SAD people. This stylish lamp forms a halo of daylight that will brighten up a room and at the same time deliver light-therapy to help sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). With a choice of mounts and a control system containing a clock, a dimmer switch, and an optional "birdsong" alarm, it provides your own personal sunset and sunrise. It is also aimed at the housebound, those with poor eyesight or sleeping disorders, and anyone seeking a little more sunshine.

Where to Find the Products That Make Life Simpler

INFORMATION ON where to buy special-needs products is provided by the Disabled Living Foundation (0870 603 9177). Age Concern also produces a fact sheet on disability equipment (0800 009966). One charity it recommends is the RNIB. Its catalogue for the visually impaired as well as the blind includes the seriously practical (coin-holders, 74p-pounds 1.22); the inventive (scented marker pens, pounds 4.50 for eight; and large-print, Brailled playing- cards, pounds 1.89 a pack (call 0345 023153). The RNIB's big-button phone (pounds 24.99) is now also available from BT (0800 400004), Argos (0870 600 3030) and Comet (0845 600 7002).

Boots' Active and Independent catalogue (0800 000777) is full of inspired products such as a kettle-tipper (pounds 25), a tap-turner (pounds 4.40-pounds 12) and the Carry Clip (pounds 2.36).

Comfortable and easy-to-use garden tools are the forte of Thrive (0118 988 5688). The Yorkshire-based Daily Care (01765 658030) has a catalogue and website (www. dailycare.demon.co.uk), featuring items from the Dycem Non-slip Jar Opener to kitchen equipment by Good Grips (also on 01282 613644).

The Design Council's "Millennium Products" (www. millennium- products.org.uk) include 14 new "grey" and disabled products, such as tactile colour (from 85p a sheet) on a range of greetings cards and stickers, the tactile globe (pounds 117.49) and the talking calculator (pounds 189), all from the RNIB.

The Design Council (0171-420 5200) is sponsoring the "Inclusive Design Event" on 29 October. Admission free (by registration only).

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