Chapter 9: The Universal Zoomer

Designing for the mature consumer is good for everyone.

“Thank God for Donna.  She’s the only one who understands my ass.”

One of my pet peeves has been the supposed incompatibility of the Zoomer world and the world of fashion. For some reason, people past a certain age are expected to surrender to the party line that fashion is shallow and consumerist. But to me, fashion is deeply relevant because it’s a telling indicator as to whether you consider yourself in the world or out of it; whether you see yourself as a still attractive, active person, regardless of age. If, after retirement, you have an- other 30 years of life, are you never going to buy another garment? Are you going to keep trying to stuff yourself into your 30-year-old clothes or, most pitifully, attempt to pour yourself into a pair of the de rigueur low-rise jeans, which even 18-year-old bodies can’t make look attractive? Far more credible to me is a sentiment recently cited in the National Post: “the time has long passed when one can say of a 68-year-old woman that she is ‘still’ beautiful, the snarky little modifier, all buzzy with irony, signifying some kind of miracle that one so elderly could be attractive.”

But lo, help is on the horizon, in  the shape of a new jeans company called Not Your Daughter’s Jeans. Frustrated by her inability to look good or be comfortable in the ever lower low-rise variety, the company’s founder designed a garment which provides enough elasticity that the denim “sculpts and gives you the appearance of a lifted derrière.” Not only do mature women look better but the jeans are also comfy enough that the company did more than $50 million in sales last year. It’s not surprising. Not Your Daughter’s Jeans happens to be a perfect example of a design movement that has the potential to change the style and lifestyle opportunities available to Zoomers in a profound way, a movement we should be promoting vigorously: Universal Design.

Universal Design (U.D.) was the brainchild of an American architect named Ron Mace working some 25 years ago at North Carolina State University. Mace, who had polio as a child and used a wheelchair (he died in 1998 at the age of 56), coined the term in the late 1980s. “Universal design,” he wrote, “is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation.” Barrier-free design, which specifically focused on providing disabled people with increased access, already existed; U.D. was a more general statement. By expanding its target group, the movement became relevant for another and growing segment of the population — Zoomers —and the crucial problem many of us are now facing: namely, how to continue to live in our homes as we age. I love my home and would love to continue to live in it, even though it’s definitely not de- signed for late-life living. In fact, after the supposed “dictum” that seniors can’t be fashionable (and sexy), my next greatest peeve is the notion that the majority of us will have no choice but to leave our homes (along with the things we care about and the neighbourhoods we know) and go into either an assisted living community or a nursing home.

Susan Ruptash is an architect with the Toronto firm Quadrangle. She started out 20 years ago designing barrier-free buildings for people with paraplegia but has now branched out into applying U.D. principles in the construction of senior housing. For Ruptash, to provide flexibility as homeowners age, there are three critical U.D. elements that should be incorporated into any home at the time of its construction. The first is ground-level access, so occupants can get in and out of the front door without steps. Second, doors and corridors need to be built wider than usual, wide enough for a wheelchair or a walker. Third, there needs to be a full bathroom or a rough-in for a full bathroom on the main floor.

The striking thing about these modifications is how cheap they are to make when a home is being built and what an expensive hassle they are to install after the fact. The second striking thing is that virtually all of them also represent improvements in convenience and safety for people who aren’t aging or disabled; i.e., what’s good for Zoomers can also be good for the population at large! Ground-level front-door access isn’t just easier for a 90-year-old; it’s also easier for a parent with a toddler or someone returning from a business trip with two suitcases (I can attest to the latter). The same holds true for other U.D. suggestions. Door handles in the house should be lever-style instead of round, including the faucets and cabinet handles (easier for everyone). The windows should be large with low windowsills, so that people who are either bedridden or in wheelchairs can enjoy the view and still “connect with the outdoors” (better light for everyone). There should be safety grab bars in the bathroom(s). Light switches and thermostats should be installed at a lower than standard height — three to four feet up — and electrical plugs should be at least 18 inches off the ground (who wouldn’t appreciate being able to pop in a phone charger without having to crawl about?).

To accommodate those who might put in an elevator at some future date, floors should have large closets stacked one on top of the other, creating a ready-made vertical shaft (who can’t use another large closet?). And to combat the isolation, an issue for seniors who live on their own, buildings should be pre-wired for electronic monitoring systems. These can sense if someone has fallen or if medication is being taken in proper amounts and at the right times.

The home is just the beginning; Universal Design can be applied to all manner of related products and services. Terry Riley, a 64-year-old psychologist who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has spent most of his professional life advising companies in ways to make their products easier for Zoomers to use. On a design team, Riley says, his job was to represent the customer, or end user, which meant he fought an uphill battle against the team’s engineers, who were determined to keep costs down and be clever. Clever turned out to mean more complicated, while Riley’s mantra was the opposite: keep it simple. Today, Riley runs a company called Geezer Design (www.geezerdesign.com), a consulting service for companies interested in tailoring their wares to the Zoomer demographic. He says, “Given the rising bubble in the retired population as the baby boomers come of age and also given the amount of money they’re carrying in their pockets, it seems to me a logical way to extend my work.”

But what distinguishes Riley’s take on U.D. is that he thinks that another important factor as we age, in addition to the change in our physical dexterity, is the change in our cognitive capabilities. “Don’t make me code and de-code,” he says. “I may want to learn new things but not everything or all the time. Above all, don’t give me so many options.”

The Jitterbug phone, which Samsung brought out in 2006 specifically for older cell phone users (only available in the U.S.), is an ideal U.D. product because, with its larger buttons and fewer functions, it does well the basic thing that a phone should do: make and receive calls. Such is the Zoomer appetite for clean and logical design that if car companies could today be weaned from their infatuation with the younger demographics, Riley’s convinced they could sell stripped-down versions of their products to seniors. “The people with the money aren’t the 18- to 45-year-olds. Why aren’t these designers thinking about and selling to the boomers?”

Good question! The situation is baffling, sometimes infuriating. Terry Riley happens to be a rare creature in his chosen field of expertise. he has, he says to his own amazement and mine, virtually no competition (he attributes this to a lack of interest in the field in general, which is why he was so surprised to be contacted by us). one reason for this indifference might be a feeling among marketers that selling to the 45-plus lacks glitz and glamour. Another might be the equally inane notion that we don’t care, that we’re content to make do with a universe of products and systems that doesn’t acknowledge us as an important and distinct consuming force. Not this Zoomer. I fully intend to try some retroactive Universal Designing of my own. I’m going to see if I can convert the home I love into one I can continue to live in into my 80s and 90s. It won’t be easy. The house sits in a ravine plus or minus 50 rough-hewn steps down from the street and the parking area. once inside, it’s five storeys tall, two above and two below a ground-floor entrance, with steps ranging from steep to very steep. Constantly running up and down the stairs is an excellent form of functional exercise (weaving exercise into daily activities), but what about the day my knees give out? Do I build a bridge or dig a tunnel? Create a funicular to offload groceries and bags? And what about the cost of that elevator?

Back where we started in the world of fashion, it turns out that Not Your Daughter’s Jeans has recently fulfilled the criterion of Universal Design it has crossed over. According to Samantha Resnick, a 21-year-old sales associate for Hill Street Blues, a jeans store in the Greater Toronto Area, young mothers in their 30s have started asking for similarly cut and elasticized jeans after they’ve had their children. Now, Not Your Daughter’s Jeans run the risk of one day becoming exactly that.

One more thing you might find interesting: the name, Not Your Daughter’s Jeans, was not coined by the company founder, Lisa Rudes Sandel, but by her father, George Rudes, whom she lured out of retirement to join the business, and who, she says, was critical to its success.

He’s 79.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.