technology designed to ease the burdens of aging. While problems with motor skills may seem like minor inconveniences, when they affect your ability to maintain your health, eat, or use the bathroom, they attack not just your quality of life, but also your dignity, Hougan says.
“I’ve really started looking at an idea of designing for dignity,” he says. “It encompasses both the functional issue and the aesthetics.”
The problem with a lot of existing technology geared toward older adults is that, while attractive, it can seem too advanced and be left unused, says Leslie Kernisan, M.D., M.P.H., a geriatrician in San Francisco and founder of BetterHealthWhileAging.net. That’s what happened when she tried a Wi-Fi-enabled blood pressure cuff with her patients.
Lower-tech solutions that are well designed are often much more useful in addressing real needs, Dr. Kernisan says. For example, if you have any concerns about falls in the home, many people know that the ideal solution is to put up grab bars, especially near the tub.
“That’s great, but it can take a little effort to do,” she says. “It turns out there are these small grab handles that work with suction cups, and a lot of people say this has worked very well for them—they put it in the bathroom or take it when they travel,” she says. “One woman said she was also using it to lift up a window more easily.”
Simple products like these that solve everyday problems can be a big help. And they often involve off-label uses, like the window-opening trick. Experts call them product hacks. Here are four that can help ease some of the small burdens associated with aging.
1. Glove Up to Open a Jar
One of the most common problems as people age, Dr. Kernisan says, is difficulty gripping things—arthritis develops in the hands, making toothbrushes and forks far less convenient. Famously, she points out, the OXO brand of kitchen utensils with large handles was created to solve this exact problem: When founder Sam Farber’s wife couldn’t hold her kitchen peeler due to arthritis, he worked to develop kitchen tools she could use.
Jar-opening has spawned many products designed to improve grip. But Dr. Kernisan says that for some patients, grippy pads and other lid-prying apparatus may come second to a much simpler solution: rubber gloves. By donning a pair before battling a jar of pickles, both hands get an extra dose of grip. And with the grippy surface taking up your whole hand, there’s no worry that the jar-opening pad won’t fit the lid or will slide off the top.
Another idea: Want a little more help for your grip? Try these five exercises that boost grip strength.
2. Stop Fishing for Your Charger
If you keep the charger for your laptop, mobile phone, tablet, or e-reader plugged in behind a desk or an end table, the cord can become a pain in the neck—and back. When you unplug the device and the cord slides off the table, you’re left fishing behind or under the table, risking a bump on the head or worse.
In his book, Life Hacks: Helpful Hints to Make Life Easier, Dan Marshall suggests a simple, unobtrusive solution: binder clips. “If you attach the clips to the far side of your desk, you can feed your favorite wires through them so they are easily accessible,” he writes.
When you unplug your device, the cable will still slide back, but instead of tumbling off the back of the table, the charging head will be stopped by the binder clip’s wire clasp. If the head of your charger is too small to be stopped, try putting a small, loose knot near the charging head so it’ll be stopped by the clip.
3. Give Yourself More Control of the Toilet Roll
When Hougan talked to seniors about issues with mobility, toilet tissue kept coming up. “It’s never accessible. The roll was either behind them, or they couldn’t reach around to get it,” he says.
When he examined his own bathroom, he found the same issue: His tissue was behind him. And while a young person might be able to contort and reach for the roll with a single hand, doing so with limited functional mobility creates a problem.
Losing the ability to use the bathroom effectively, Hougan says, is one of the areas that inspires him to design with dignity. The toilet paper problem led Hougan to develop a stylish, flexible toilet paper roll holder through his design studio, Bluezone Design, that will make it easier for seniors to reach and tear the paper. His product also features another innovation from a caregiver he met: The holder changes the shape of the center tubes from a circle to an oval with pointed ends.
“We’ve all done the thing where we grab the toilet paper roll, and it goes ‘fup-fup-fup-fup-fup,’” he says. The oval shape creates more control over how much paper is dispensed. “It makes the roll sort of start and stop instead of flying.”
While Hougan’s flexible roll product hasn’t made it to market yet, you can create that slower “fup-fup” starting right now. Before loading a new toilet paper roll and while it’s still in the packaging, step on it—literally. You’ll change the shape of the roll from a circle to an eye-shaped oval and have more control over how much paper rolls out.
4. Use an Ice Tray to Give Your Hands a Break
To keep track of the problems seniors are experiencing that he might address—and the solutions they’re creating on their own—Hougan keeps several bulletin boards of DIY photos on Pinterest.
“They identify areas where there are problems they’re experiencing,” he says. And they create their own—sometimes crude—solutions.
One such trick for card players: If it’s getting harder to hold them or keep them in your hand as you shift cards around, flip an ice tray over. The slots will keep your cards standing and make them easy to organize.
Another idea: Increasing circulation in your hands can ease pain. Try a gentle self-massage using a tennis ball.