Monday, December 21, 2009

Cooking Safety

Laurie Orlov ( )was kind enough to provide a link for a home safety device in a comment to my last post. I thought I would add it here to ensure it gets noticed. This is an aftermarket device that can be added to improve safety for electric ranges. It is the latest generation of a type of product that has been on the market for awhile and certainly is something to consider.

However, a point I was trying to make is that features like this are more effective and generally more functional when they are designed into the product in the first place. The nice thing about the fire fighting faucet is that the technology is integrated so it looks better and works continuously in the background. Similarly, more faucets could be designed that inherently limit the scald risk. And devices like stove could have better safety features built in--is it this type of technical advancement I'm hoping to see (at affordable levels)

Until then, the aftermarket solutions will have to do.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Smart technology that protects everyone

I came across this article in the NY Times today about a faucet that fights fires. Seems that the faucet is linked to a fire alarm. When the alarm trips, a special valve opens and a pump under the sink produces high pressure jets of fine mist. This mist immediately turns to steam around the fire and robs it of oxygen, putting the fire out.

I would love to see (read that as I have been WAITING to see)technology built into stoves that can sense when a pot gets too hot or when one has been left unattended for too long and lowers the temperature. That would be a better first line of defense. But having seen the effects of fires caused by overheated pots and pans or even unattended air poppers and other countertop appliances, this device will be a nice, non-intrusive approach to solving one of the worst after effects of "a senior moment."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Differences, and similarities, between aging and gardening;

It is late-summer, almost the end of August. There is much in my garden that is vibrant—those rose bushes that have decided to put on a dramatic show this year, the bee balm in full flower and drawing hummers from every corner. The Kentucky Runners dangling their tender bean pods. But as I walk around my garden I see everything that has already bloomed. While there is so much good weather left to experience—here in Portland we can expect the pleasant weather to last well into October-- so much has passed, not to come again this year.

As with almost everything, I see an allegory to our clientele at In Your Home. So many people we work for have much good time left despite the fact that so much of bloom of their life has faded. The difference is that when I look at the spent blooms of my garden, I naturally think about next year. What do I want to move or propagate to extend the blooming season? What do I want to give something better conditions so it can really flower. Where are there holes to fill in the border or overcrowded beds to thin. There always another chance that another spring and summer provides.

But we humans aren’t a garden. We talk about the seasons of our life, but as I see it we are not a plant, but ourselves a garden that has one long “growing season.” Just like the garden in spring is different than the garden in late summer, if we live well, we can flower repeatedly with different blooms fitting each of our stages in life. Yet in the end, if we are honest, we know we have but one season that slips away toward that cold winter soil.

So, how do we provide the conditions that will make these lifelong season one that is as nurturing and fertile as possible? As always, I find, the garden has some inspirations:
  • Don’t be afraid to transplant. Uprooting and moving can be the right decision for many plants. We humans tend to be unique, enjoying changes in our environment at different times. We can fix up a house and sell it and move on to a new experience—aging in place need not mean being trapped in the same ol’ structure, it is aging independently and in community. As with a garden, certain times are better than others to transplant—leaving it too late or under the wrong conditions can mean your success is compromised.

  • Tend and till. A home, like a garden, only prospers if tended. A light hand at tending, perhaps, but tending none-the-less. If we don’t take care of our home, it will be eaten by mold, nibbled at by destructive creatures, and generally lose its vibrancy due to lack of care.

  • Acknowledge what does not work. Trying to get in and out of a tub shower has about as much likelihood of success as growing lavender in a bog. It may work for a few seasons if we work hard and catch good luck from the weather, but eventually the rot occurs. Better to plant (or build) what will work for the long term with minimum care.
If I think now about how I want my garden to be next year, I have a chance to make those changes and enjoy something better next year. Even if it does not work, the vibrancy of spring will mask my mistakes. But there is no spring vibrancy for us poor aging humans—so if I think now about how I want my own life to be, I can make the changes and start to appreciate them tomorrow. There is little point in waiting.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Survey targeting businesses serving the AIP market

Mark Hager at is fielding a survey targeting business people who are focused on the AIP movement. Sponsored by SRES (Senior Real Estate Specialists). A number of us in the community provided input.

It you are such a business, please take a moment to complete the survey.

Body Dryer

This product made its way through my e-mail scanners--I rarely pay attention to those messages, but this appears to be another product coming over from the UK/Europe where product design for bathing accessibility seems to be ahead of what we have over here. It is a full body dryer, making it easier for someone to dry off after a shower without bending or assistance. The claim is that cost to operate is about the same as laundering towels--suppose that depends on how often you wash your towels tho.

Can't vouch for how well it works yet, but seems an ideal product for lots of folks.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ageism at The Open

Reading the press coverage of The (British) Open this morning after, the sports writers and pundits are showing the ugly head of ageism right and left. Their reports are rife with phase like “his tired old bones,” “his age finally showed,” and even “old geezer.” Never mind that other players of much younger ages have blown final round leads of greater margins with poorer play. Never mind that leading The Open, or any other major tournament, on all four days is a seldom achieved event. Never mind that a certain great player of the day never even made the cut. And never mind that there is a whole cadre of golfers Watson’s age who play professionally week in and week out. I’m sorry, but playing 22 holes of golf is not beyond a fit 59 year old’s ability, and especially not a great athlete like we saw this weekend.

Sure, there are not many times when a professional athlete past their thirties plays at the top of their sport. Certainly age catches up with us. But to say that the only reason that Tom Watson lost was because he is “old” just shows how far we have yet to go before we treat age fairly, practically and without bias. Nothing was a more insidious reflection of this than the two announcers saying that it was nice Cink had won because he is young, and that if Tom had won, it would not have changed his life. Meaning: he’s just a washed up old man with not much life left. Wasn't it nice he got out for a good walk.

Of course it would have changed his life. He would have been remembered for doing what no one else had done, to seal that image he thirsts for still—to be remember as a truly great golfer. Achievements change our lives every day until we die. To say they don’t knocks the legs out from anyone who tries to live the latter years of their life with dignity, grace and purpose.

Of course, the apologists trot out the adage “age is just a number” which is just as idiotic as saying that Watson lost because of his age. Age is much more than a number. It's a reality, baby. It is a reality that each of us chooses to handle in our own way. Some of us retire to an easy chair, adding to our girth and our medical problems. Some of us become demoralized and withdraw. And some of us choose to adapt and keep doing what we love to do, as best we can. Racings cars, gardening, climbing mountains, cooking, running companies, writing, travelling, etc. We retrofit our bodies and our homes and keep living as we want to.

Tom Watson has adapted. He has had joint replacement. He has stayed fit. He has adapted his game and the courses he plays—links style golf suits him well, whereas by his own admission he hates the Masters because the course does not suit his game and he feels like an honorary golfer rather than a contender.

Adaptation is the key to aging well and Tom Watson has given us a rare glimpse into how it can work. He played extremely well for someone of any age. I won’t say that what Watson did was a great thing and he should feel good about it even though he lost. Sure, it was a great thing, no doubt. But losing is going to, in his words, tear at his gut. To say that he should be proud anyway is patronizing and ageist. I like Jack Nicklaus’s explanation that it wasn't age or being tired,but that missing the putt on 18, missing the chance to seize the Claret Jug then and there, very likely took the wind out of his sales and he didn’t recover from that. It’s the same thing that happens to many people in all sorts of situations and all walks of life. But it is part of choosing to live a rich life. Age does not defeat us as much as not caring, not engaging, and also not being realistic does.

And to say that he lost because of his age is not only a great disservice to Tom, it is a disservice to Stewart Cink, who won not because Tom is “old”, but because Cink fought back, gave himself a chance, and had the drive to treat Tom as an equal and a bona fide contender and do what he needed to slam the door on Watson’s chances to take another title. While I’m sure some thoughts about Tom’s stature and age crossed his mind, Cink was one person on the course who was not looking through the lens of ageism—he just competed. Any class of people who are not treated as equal suffers, and that applies to those who have a few years on the rest of us as well as anyone.

Cink’s competitiveness underscores the point that Watson has done a better job than most of adapting and staying fit and keeping motivated by what he loves. The more we all deal with our age in a manner that reflects Watson’s drive and spirit, the better off we all will be. Our company helps people every day who are doing the same in much smaller and less public ways, and it is a joy to see.

Ageism endeavors to make us less than we are. The sooner we see the back side of it, the better. How widespread it was this weekend was a sad state of affairs.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Reinforcing visitability as part of Universal Design

"My home does not hold anybody out." For some reason I had not come across this video from AARP before. I have to complement the team, it is a very nicely done video that really hits the key points. But I especially like the focus on visitability. If we are looking to create the optimal environment for aging in place, we have to remember our needs to socialize and maintain friendships. Socialization is critical for our emotional well being. Making it so our friends and family can visit is just as important in the long run as making it easier for me to do my ADLs so that I feel good about going out in the world. Hopefully we will continue to see more and more attention paid to visitablity by new home builders. In the mean time, companies like In Your Home regularly help people make their own homes better suited to this need.

The video is at

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Designs that are great for everyone.

To follow up on the last posts a bit, let's talk about the Moen Digital IO series of electronic shower valves and controls. These new valves put all the plumbing behind the wall except for a small control panel that can be placed anywhere in the shower area.

When we remodel showers, we often bring the shower controls to the front of the enclosure, so they are easier to reach for a caregiver or someone with a balance issue, or moving them to the back wall where they are convenient for a seated bather. This electronic controller would eliminate the need to all that additional plumbing, helping to reduce the complexity of the install (and offset some of the cost of the device.)

But you can even get them with a remote control. Moen says that it would allow you to turn on the shower from across the room, however I suspect that few people have such an open floor plan for that to make a lot of sense. However, it totally eliminates any concern about where the controls are placed. Someone with balance problems can start the shower without having to reach in, and no one needs to risk getting hit with a cold spray of water--you stand safely outside the shower, use the remote to turn it on, and step comfortably in. Whereas my old solution of locating the controls in the location that best fit the user with a limitation meant that the shower was only optimized for a single person. Now, inherent in the design is that it is optimal for every user.

This principle is taken further with the fact that the controls have 4 preset temperatures--one for each member of the family. Especially useful, for example, if you have MS and need to have a cooling shower. But it is a feature that is of wide use--my wife prefers much hotter showers than I do. While we have a thermostatic valve, with this device I would not have to readjust it every time I get in, I just hit the button corresponding to my setting.

There is even a pause function--which uses the universal "II" symbol that we see on video and music players.

I haven't spoken to the folks at Moen to see what their motivation for this design was. But to me it speaks of a innovation that is targeted to provide comfort and ease for all shower uses, and it just so happens that it will have an enormous impact on the ease with which a lot of folks who are less mobile than they used to be or who have a disability manage their ADLs.

Prices on these electronic controls have continued to decline, and while the Digital IO line is still a premium over a standard valve, it is much closer to the range at which it becomes affordable. As prices drop further, I think we will see such systems as the smart standard for our shower remodels.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Design evolution

Another set of thoughts on this theme is that as technologies and design evolve and mature, often this leads to a convergence that makes them more accessible to a wider variety of people. Certainly costs tend to decrease, making the designs more accessible. But abilities and general acceptability tend to expand as well, widening the appeal of newer iterations of a technology.

A case in point may be the evolution of what are now being called Personal Mobility Vehicles or PMVs. Today a PMV might be a scooter chair, a golf cart, or a Segway for the more adventurous. These devices are becoming ever more popular forms of transportation, either for those who lack the mobility to walk distances or for alternative forms of transport. In many retirement communities golf carts are a de facto alternative to a car. In fact, I recently read that about half the injuries on golf carts (they are rather unsafe vehicles) occur off the golf course.

Scooter chairs, on the other hand, are slower and therefore safer, but certainly have a stigma, are not always easy to manuever, and their size and limitations can sometimes make them a frustrating experience for both the rider and for ambulatory people who are sharing the sidewalk, common space, or kitchen.

Enter the modern PMV. One prototype is the Toyota i-swing. Read how it was described when displayed at the 2005 Toyota Motor Show: The single-person vehicle package boasts an individual design with a “wearable” feeling. Its low-resistance urethane body is covered in cloth to soften any impact while operating near people, and an LED illumination panel can be customized to display an image to suit your mood.When traveling in a bustling street full of people, the i-swing can operate in a two-wheeled mode that takes up little space, so that it is possible to travel while keeping pace and talking with someone on foot. When there is a need to move quickly, the i-swing can change to a three-wheeled mode, which is fun to travel in. In addition to the stick control, a pedal control can be used to provide a fresh cornering feeling, as you shift your body weight as if you were on skis.The i-swing proposes the concept of using A.I. communication to enable it to grow, learning the habits and preferences of users by storing relevant data about them.

Here, in one device, we have customization, adaptability for the user and compensatory systems (collision avoidance) so that I do not have to master a joystick to navigate safely. I have a design that is tolerant of the errors I make and sensitive to those around me.

This is another example of where application of smart design and UD principles result in a design that would be a better solution for wide range of people and applications than any of the current technologies. It's all just a prototype now, but clearly moving in a better direction, evolving the technology.

Design for the universe or the user?

I've had several good responses to my recent post on Universal Design. In particular Bill Shackleford made some good points about the derivative effects of design for accommodation.

I don't disagree that designs and technologies which start with the intent to accommodate limitations to abilities often spawn solutions providing much wider benefits. Nor am I saying that we should not try to design solutions for to help accommodate specific limitations. In fact, I have been working on a theoretical framework and typology for assistive technology that address just this dynamic. My goal is that if we better understand that at some level all technology is assistive and that its benefits can be leveraged to the greater good, we can make progress more quickly and efficiently.

But I was making a different point in my original blog. Foremost, I was saying that we do Universal Design a disservice when we only present it as a way of dealing with disabilities. When presented in the fashion, many in the mainstream will marginalize the message. And that works against creating a world with fewer barriers.

Second, Bill says:

There are many (MANY!) other examples of well designed products and systems in mainstream use that appear to have been 'universally designed', but in fact were initially targeted for persons with disabilities - to 'accommodate' them.

Certainly there are. But that is a statement of current reality, not necessarily the ideal process. If from the start we had addressed the needs that Bills examples address with an orientation toward how the solution could more widely benefit, we might have gotten to that end state sooner. And I would be willing to bet that there are many things designed to accommodate a disability that have fallen by the wayside because they were obviated by better designed, more universal solutions.

Scott Rains pointed out a term "inclusive design" and I like the phrase "user centered design" which is one that resonates with Bill's comment that he begins his design process thinking about his users, not design principles. But this points to an inherent tension--are we designing for a specific user, or users in general? If we are talking about a product where a person has a range of options or the ability to customize, I think that user centered design is the way to go. Or when it is a group of people for whom you have a clear insight about common usage patterns or abilities. However if we are talking about multi-use situations and public spaces or common areas, UD principles are undoubtedly something that should guide the process from the beginning.

All of this off course flows into what motivates people to actually innovate or design--maybe the best designs will always come from the individual desire to create something that solves a personal need or desire. But nothing in that is hurt by increasing an awareness that the best designs are at some level universally applicable.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Universal Design is not just about disabilities.

Blogger Shyamala is an industrial designer. In her recent post ( she does a nice job of illustrating a number of universal design principles through the thoughtful creation of three personas with disabilities. It’s well done, but does seem to miss one of the key aspects of universal design. UD is not simply about making things useful/usable by people with disabilities. Really excellent examples of UD improve usage for all people. From a picture of the Toyota prototype that she shows it is obvious that this would be a more usable design for someone with mobility issues. But I am 6’ 4” tall and am forever sitting down in a front seat, not realizing that my wife has moved the seat forward and banging my knees and twisting my back in the process. Sure, it would be nice if I learned, but I don't, and sometimes I have to say that it's not apparent that the seat is forward from a quick glance early in the morning. Also, this design looks like it would provide easier access to the back seat—something that full sized adults or school kids with heavy backpacks would benefit from. I can relate how this would be helpful to folks with impairments—I’m thinking of the times I’ve thrown my back out, when getting into a traditional front seat is a nightmare—but a good design like this is helpful for a much wider audience.

As Shyamala points out “Universal design is the concept or approach to be more precise, of making any design accessible and usable by as many people as possible, irrespective of the age, situation and ability.“ However, typically this gets relegated in practice to “designs that are good for people with impairments or disabilities.” When this happens, we all miss out and the UD message is weakened.

The reality is that many designs are what they are because of historical technological limits or for no better reason than a lack of comprehensive thought being applied during the design process. Also at play is the consumer preference for low price over quality of design and construction, even thought the two are not inherently in conflict. I think affordability should be the eigth UD principle.

When we focus only on accommodation, rather than universal benefit, we unfortunately undermine the full promise of UD. As unpleasant as it is, the reality is that things that are seen solely as accommodations for those with disabilities will wind up being marginalized by a large proportion of the population. On the other hand, if the same designs are seen simply as “easier to use” they will get wider appeal and acceptance. Best to think of UD as a movement to create a more functional, flexible, intuitive and forgiving environment for all of us. If that were achieved, the need to make physical modifications to homes would be greatly decreased.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What's that box? Senior social networking??

What's that box to the left here, the one with the vintage photo of a guy scratching his chin? Its a Twitter gadget, showing my tweets. Might sond abit personal, but so it is, believe it or not.

I'm still not sure that Web 2.0 apps like Twitter will ever amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world (other than to make it crazier) but then again, they may be just the ticket.

Check out this article in the NY Times about social networking for the senior set.

I foresee tweets from the cruise ship. Tweeting family to say that all is well. A Twitter based device that sends an alert tweet if I don't press it on a regular basis. At least the grand kids would know about it.

Actually, while I expect Twitter won't last in its current form, and that little Twitter box over there will go away someday, I am a strong believer that technology will ease many of the burdens of age, and psychological isolation is certainly one of them. It's certainly not a panacea, but internet based socialization can certainly be a great boon for those who have limited ability to connect in other ways. Indeed, just like some youths and younger adults find it more easy to connect in a virtual world than a real one, there are probaby a lot of seniors who would sit isolated in a room full of people but who find that they have youthful, renewed ability on the social network.

What lesson will they learn?

As we boomers age and take first hand seats watching how our older friends and our parents handle the journey, I wonder what lessons we will really learn. Many times, we have customers who call us out to discuss a plan for an aging or disabled relative, only to have the person’s condition worsen before anything can be done. Often, the loved one passes away. In some cases they have spent years dealing with frailty and diminished ability, with an environment that creates stress or unhappiness, but when they finally decide to take action, it is too late. In the current economy, this is happening more and more.

In just the past month, we numerous examples—a family that made some urgent modifications and bought a portable ramp that never got out of the box because their loved one died. A family who wanted to make home better for their father who was in their 80’s—he passed away just before we were to visit the home. He was surrounded by his grandchildren and passed quietly in his sleep—isn’t that how we would all like to go.

One lesson, the one I would like to see, is that we need to be proactive in order for adaptations to our homes to provide value. But I’m sure many others will see a lesson of “why bother.” Perhaps this will be resignation that the latter stages of our life will be short and not worth taking precautions for. And that will be true for some. But for many more, life could be safer and more gratifying if we plan ahead. Not just for things like walk in showers or masters on the main, but for basic requirements for sound roof, durable flooring and efficient HVAC.

As a generation, which will be the lesson we most often learn—act, wait or not bother at all?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Fix Housing or Sell Housing?

I got interested when I saw the name of the initiative--Fix Housing First. At last, I thought, someone is paying attention to the problem of our aging housing stock. It's a waste to continually tear down existing housing and build new in its place (or spread out and use up more land) when so many properties could be repaired and upgraded, maintaining the character and livabilty of existing neighborhoods.

But alas, the Fix Housing First initiative has nothing to do with fixing houses, it is about incentives to buy and sell homes--a package of tax credits and low fixed rate mortgages for buyers of homes. Nothing for those who prefer to stay where they are.

Now, I recognize that we are all impacted by the decline in home prices, and housing market improvements will help everyone secure credit and retain wealth. Many seniors, in particular, have had to delay plans to move to assisted living or to be closer to family because of the slow real estate market, so a rebound would be particularly advantageous for them. A rebound in the housing market will be good for most existing home buyers.

But the cynic in me also knows that large scale developers are the most direct beneficiaries of a program like this. And I'm reminded that speculation and overdevelopment are partly at fault for the decline in home values, which were inflated by the real estate bubble. Rather than always pushing to use up more land and to build new, wouldn't it be nice to see incentives and programs that support people who invest in their existing property and who help improve and maintain the neighborhood where they live? That would be wiser and lead to more sustainable and effective housing for most.

More details about the Fix Housing Now initiative here: