In an effort to better understand and address some of the challenges associated with aging, such as limited tactile sensation and restricted movement of the knees, elbows and neck, the ergonomics team at Ford Motor Company regularly dons what they call a “third-age suit” – an outfit designed with added bulk and rigidity that restricts many of the movements we otherwise take for granted. By putting engineers and designers in this limited-mobility suit, complete with a pair of bulky gloves and cataract goggles and earplugs for reduced visual and auditory acuity, Ford can really get a feel for the driving and control use needs of the older population and apply ergonomic design solutions to address those needs. Now imagine you or I wearing this type of outfit and trying to negotiate a busy post office or grocery store, a crowded city bus, or simply going from room to room around the house. That would give us a taste of the reality of daily life for millions of aging folks, just like my Mom.
Age-Related Hearing Loss
The ear plugs used as part of Ford’s third-age suit give their ergonomics team a sense of the frustrations of trying to discern a sound that is either muffled or hard to understand amidst loud background noises. This is how many older adults hear with out assistance from amplification aids or background noise cancelling devices. In addition to encouraging the use of amplification devices, the American Academy of Audiology recommends folks with age-related hearing loss use electronics with magnified audio output such as phones, televisions, and computer speakers, and to consider using products with visual cues instead of auditory cues whenever possible, such as phones that light up or flash when ringing.
Balance and Mobility: Preventing Falls
Just getting around the living room, kitchen or bathroom can often present challenges for older folks. So the use of grab bars and balance bars in hallways, bedrooms and bathrooms are very helpful. In the case of my Mom, we have eliminated throw rugs as they present a slipping hazard, as well as cords, cables, and any carts or tables on wheels that will become a roll-away hazard if leaned on for support. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the umber one cause of injury deaths among seniors. And the National Safety Council has reported falls among the older adults, whether fatal or nonfatal, are almost always linked to some tripping hazard or accident-causing culprit.
Only the Beginning…
We know that older adults are living longer these days and their numbers (now in the millions) are increasing daily. Also, it’s clear that many of these older adults are opting for home delivered care or assisted living instead of traditional nursing homes. As this trend continues, and it certainly will, it is imperative that ergonomists focus on design solutions to make daily life suitable, accessible, and, of course, just a little easier for the aging population.