Considerations for Designing Shower Spaces for the Elderly

I find the term ‘Grey Market’ intriguing and ask myself ‘What exactly is this?’ My initial assumption is members of the public aged 75+ but on searching Google I discover several references – ‘mature’, ‘over 60s’ ‘silver surfers’ and then a definition: ‘The grey market is broadly defined as those over the age of 50 (Although sometimes figures include those over the age of 45’). This is a huge surprise – I actually fall into this category but thankfully think I am not yet a ‘silver surfer’! However, further Google searches reveal ‘Silver Surfers’ can be defined as “web users over the age of 50 and beyond." It is now clear the ‘grey market’ covers a huge spectrum of people including those who would probably consider themselves middle-aged and those in the latter years of life.

So, I search for products aimed at the ‘Grey Market’. To my horror I discover catalogues filled either with unattractive items ‘clinical’ in appearance that can only be used by the individual and are therefore isolating and proclaim aging, or traditional furniture covered in outdated fabrics and patterns. Beige (defined in Google as ‘a pale fawn colour’) predominates.

“The outlook is depressing – is this really how society views the mature population?”

The majority of people pictured have grey hair. The outlook is depressing – is this really how society views the mature population? Is the assumption mature individuals have lost their zest for life and aspirational living and should sit back in their chairs and be grateful for, and be happy to use, unexciting and often embarrassingly ugly products? If that is so it is time to change the thinking! I do not have grey hair, I love colour and consider myself to be smart and fashionably dressed. My home bears testimony to my profession.

Personally I would not buy a single one of those products and I wonder who designs them. As an Interior Designer I am aware home and commercial interiors are influenced by current trends and colours favoured by the fashion industry, and as a qualified Occupational Therapist I know colour can have a positive or negative effect on an individual’s mood and function. Colour is a statement, defining a person and their personality and using either no colour or only neutral shades of brown can denote passivity and insignificance. Recently I found a product that ticked all the boxes but had not been specifically designed for the Grey Market. This was a white china mug featuring a designer handle – amber coloured and easy to grip by a weak or strong hand. It had universal appeal an aspirational and versatile item that families would purchase for both general home use and entertaining.

“Product Designers should aim for Inclusive living not social isolation”

I appreciate the Grey Market spans several decades and the aging process, although gradual, will inevitably involve disability, most commonly difficulties with mobility, hand function memory and comprehension. Some products will need to be ‘disability specific’ but even then there is no excuse not to incorporate colour and form in designs to make the product attractive to use. For example when designing chairs and seating special attention should be paid to ensuring the backrest is supportive to encourage good posture, the armrests wide and positioned at a comfortable height to encourage joint alignment and the seat fixed at a height suitable for a safe and easy transfer from sitting into standing.

However it should be remembered these features can be incorporated into various styles and the chair covered in the same fabrics and patterns as those in high street stores or featured in magazines. Similarly a product designed to overcome a difficulty with hand function should be shaped to enable operation using the weakest grip and least amount of effort. Despite these constraints it should be possible to make it attractive to the user and produced in a colour range to match and /or compliment other appliances. Product Designers should aim for Inclusive living not social isolation and I would strongly suggest all new products should be ‘disability friendly’. So, when designing a new product I would ask designers to ask themselves the following questions:

Would I personally use this product?

  • Would I personally use this product?
  • If ‘yes’ would I only use it when alone or incompany?
  • Do I think my friends and family will enjoy using it?
  • Do I think people of any age will enjoy using it?
  • It is functional and easy to use?
  • Is it easy to understand how to use it?
  • Is it versatile?
  • Is it affordable?
  • Is it aesthetic in appearance?
  • Finally – Do I think it is ‘cool’?

If the answer to all the above questions is ‘Yes’ they are definitely on the right track and should proceed to the next stage of production but if any of the answers are ‘No’ it will be necessary to return to the drawing board. I would strongly suggest before proceeding to the manufacturing and marketing stages any prototype is subjected to survey by potential users and professionals, their opinions and comments noted and the product modified accordingly. This new approach will make a product more attractive to users – an aspirational ‘must have’ rather than a resigned acceptance. Consumers will be not only the current ‘captured’ market but also those previously too embarrassed to use ‘old style’ products and families happy to purchase and use the new product as part of ‘inclusive living’ Most importantly self-respect and self-esteem will be restored. Transition between being young and old is seamless.

As longevity increases The Grey Market will continue to expand in number. People will be expected to continue to work into their 70’s and will have disposable income and aspirations. No longer content to accept the mundane – they will demand choice and high quality aesthetic products that integrate rather than segregate them in society. Adopting a ‘considered approach’ in product design will produce a ‘win win’ situation benefitting consumers by abandoning stereotyping and acknowledging their rights to self-respect dignity and self-esteem, and manufacturers by increased sales.

Elaine Hollerhead OT Dip COT
Designate UK

Elaine has extensive experience working as an Occupational Therapist in the NHS and Social Services. Whilst working in the NHS Elaine has worked closely, and developed good relationships, with GPs, multi-disciplinary teams, colleagues in Social Services, local hospitals and voluntary agencies. Clinically she has developed expertise working with adults with acute and degenerative medical conditions and has a special interest in neurology and palliative care.
Her employment in Social Services enabled her to advise adult clients with a broad spectrum of disabilities on property modifications and when involved on housing projects to acquire extensive experience working with architects and surveyors.

Elaine studied Interior Design at the National Design Academy in Nottingham and in 2009 was awarded the prestigious National Design Academy Diploma in Professional Interior Design. Using her combined skills and knowledge as an Occupational Therapist and Interior Designer she intends to dispel the myth disabled environments are necessarily bland and depressing.