Rethinking Mobility

The role of design in assisting movement and destigmatising old age

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Many of us take for granted being able to move around easily and freely on our own two legs. But as we get closer to old age, our bodies become less able to cope with the strain we put on our bones, muscles, joints, tendons, and all the other parts of our anatomy that keep us on our feet. So we eventually need some help getting from A to B. However, the equipment we use to assist us has traditionally been, although functional, less than aesthetically pleasing.

The mobility scooter, the zimmer frame and even the humble walking stick can therefore carry negative associations with old age. So designers are creating new and improved products that aid movement and aid the elderly get around, while employing better style and ergonomics in order to help them retain dignity. From simple upgrades of recognisable designs to innovative high-tech wearables, these items offer their users a new lease on life and fresh get up and go, encouraging them to stay active for longer.

Scooter for Life

One such product is the Scooter For Life, designed by transport experts PriestmanGoode for the 2017 New Old exhibition at London’s Design Museum. The concept combines a push scooter and a shopping trolley into a single item that can be easily converted from one to the other. Three wheels give the scooter extra stability, and its wide base is coated in a high-grip surface. A fabric pouch on the front can store groceries, clothing, or other personal items needed while on the go.

The idea is that these vehicles can be ridden by anyone, young or old, and remain suitable for a user throughout their lifetime. A neutral, contemporary appearance is employed to help achieve this, although a variety of colour options allows an owner to match the scooter to their personality.

“There is undoubtedly a stigma associated with mobility aids, and we were determined that our solution would address this,” said studio cofounder Paul Priestman. “Many of the users we spoke to thought that current solutions felt like having one foot in the grave. So we wanted to design something that was both beautiful as well as highly practical.”

No Country for Old Men

For their project No Country for Old Men, Italian-Singaporean duo Lanzavecchia + Wai designed a series of mobility aids that look more appropriate for the home than the hospital. The furniture pieces range from wheelable walking sticks that double as side tables and storage baskets to chairs that help a user stand up. These objects are intentionally unobtrusive, blending into and complementing their domestic surroundings, rather than looking like specialised pieces of mobility equipment.

It is therefore hoped that users can feel less selfconscious about leaving the furniture aids on show and would even make a feature of them in their homes. The designers describe the family of products as “not only attentive to the daily difficulties encountered by the elderly, but also how it can finally complement our domestic living spaces and acquired laziness.”

Auro Powered Clothing by Yves Behar’s studio Fuseproject helps activate elderly peo-ple’s muscles
Auro Powered Clothing, by Yves Behar/Fuseproject, Superflex process. Photo courtesy Fuseproject

Aura Powered Clothing

Also presented in the New Old exhibition, the Aura Powered Clothing by Yves Behar’s studio Fuseproject uses electric pulses to help activate a wearer’s muscles. Worn beneath everyday garments, the lightweight and flexible fabric unitard is equipped with motors encased in hexagonal pods. Clusters of these pods align with muscle groups on the upper back and thighs, and connect to the lower back and hips. Using artificial intelligence, sensors detect the wearer’s movements and activate the motors to tighten bands hidden in the fabric, providing lumbar support, and assistance in walking, sitting and standing.

Currently a prototype, the suit was created with robotics company Superflex and continues to be developed. But the concept is an example of how discreet wearable items will soon be able to help the elderly undertake day-to-day activities more easily, without being conspicuous.

Go Wheelchair by Benjamin Hubert/Layer is a customisable seat shell that helps elderly people in reducing pressure points, and avoiding pain or injury.
Go Wheelchair by Benjamin Hubert/Layer. Photo courtesy Layer

Go Wheelchair

New technology was also harnessed by design studio Layer, founded by Benjamin Hubert, when creating the “world’s first 3D-printed consumer wheelchair.” A customisable seat shell and foot bay, lightweight minimal frame and delicate wheel spokes are a stark departure from the clunky and cumbersome wheelchair designs we’re used to seeing. Not only intended for the elderly, the product was developed with 3D-printing company Materialise to aid both comfort and usability. Since every user’s body is different, the custom elements are crucial in reducing pressure points, and avoiding pain or injury.

“We listened to the stories of wheelchair users and medical practitioners and then translated those stories into insights that helped us to transform the wheelchair as we know it today,” said Hubert.

Other recent advances in wheelchair design include wheels with springs instead of spokes, which act as shock absorbers and offer smoother journeys, and frames made from graphene that are strong yet incredibly lightweight, and therefore easier to self-propel. Together, these upgrades are transforming an outdated but pivotal piece of equipment.

Whether daringly futuristic or satisfyingly simple, the new wave of assisted-mobility products promises to not only improve the way the elderly get around, but transform our mindsets about their use. Design is playing a crucial role in destigmasing age, and keeping the older generation moving.

Main image: No Country for Old Men collection, Lanzavecchia + Wai. Photo © David Farabegoli

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