Useful Design, Useful Aging: Exploring the Tech Galaxy With Longevity Explorers

caneexplorers-telRichard Caro is a tightrope walker.

A successful entrepreneur with decades of experience in bringing high-tech products to market, he’s most recently turned his attention to aging and product design. On the surface, his Longevity Explorers assess the quality of products and technology. Yet Caro knows his work is about something much deeper.

“I had this light bulb experience early on,” Caro says of interviews held a few years ago. “One of the ladies said ‘I miss being useful.’ That kept coming up.”

Caro’s five circles of Longevity Explorers in Northern California – three in the Bay Area, one each in Sacramento and Saratoga – meet monthly to explore the efficacy of everything from jar openers to pill dispensers, safety alerts, talking alarm clocks, even pee-proof underwear. There are around 200 explorers in all.

“It’s like the Consumer Reports for the elderly,” says Helen Connolly, 89, a Longevity Explorer from the Saratoga Retirement Community.

“We think there’s a need for these clever new products,” says Caro. “Where the usefulness comes in I think is in this huge cadre of older adults put off to the side. And their accumulated wisdom is sort of ignored.”

Caro echoes aging expert Stuart Greenbaum, who has said that as a society we “take the people with the most experience and throw them away.”

Lynn Davis of San Francisco Village heralds the process of Longevity Explorers – bringing in existing products and testing new ones as Caro fosters discussions — as a critical way of adding meaning to the aging process.

“It’s really affirmed that someone in their 60’s or 70’s up to their 90’s can be incredibly creative and thoughtful,” says Davis.

Connolly says that when her fellow Saratoga explorers discussed the wide variety of walkers on the market (“They’re all really terrible”) it spawned a deep dive research effort by one resident — a former engineer in quality control.

She laments the current state of design for the aging.

“Packaging has become terrible for the elderly because they’re so hard to open up,” she sighs. “Some people will ask the clerk to open (packages) in the store before they go home.”

Since Caro’s explorers are concentrated in retirement communities of mostly educated, wealthy retirees, they are typically thoughtful and discriminating.

“They all have a kind of intellectual curiosity,” he says.

And they’re equally opinionated.

“My ongoing frustration is that every new device has its own logic that you’ve got to figure out,” says Judy Winn-Bell, 71, whose husband is a former engineer. “There are very few things that are truly user-friendly for someone over 60. Sometimes I don’t even try to do something because it makes me so angry to try to figure it out.”

Anybody who has wrestled with the plastic packaging around a simple CD case understands her frustration. For older adults facing the perils of modern design — and ever evolving digital technology – these frustrations can escalate from annoyance to despair in a flash.

Caro wants to put a stop this madness, insisting that the best products include older adults heavily in the design process; meanwhile, confusing technologies should be “buried inside a project.”

A guest column for Caro’s site written by inventor Peter G. Zimmer uses two fictional characters to illustrate the polar opposite approaches to design for the aging: P.G. Wodehouse’s elegant and clever valet Jeeves, and the cruel matriarch Nurse Ratched who tortures the inmates of Ken Kesey’s mental institution in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“If only Jeeves were in charge of product design for older adults!” writes Zimmer on Caro’s website, Tech-enhanced Life, recounting his personal journey into product design for the elderly while serving as caregiver for his mother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

One Explorers circle reviewed lighted canes, and quickly uncovered their fatal flaws, which Caro summarizes in an audio review: lights weren’t bright enough, cane heights weren’t adjustable, and handles were uncomfortable. The decided favorite: A lighted cane with LED flashlight, panic alarm and alert light.

Born in Australia then schooled at Oxford where he became a Rhodes Scholar, Caro worked as an experimental physicist at Stanford before forging a successful business career shepherding technologies to market. He even served as the chief technologist for one of two companies pioneering laser eye surgery, or LASIK.

In 2004, Caro launched the consulting firm Tangible Future; three years ago the business accelerator inspired Tech-enhanced Life, where Caro posts thoughtful reviews not only of tech and design products but other areas of interest, including books on caregiving and aging.

Caro remains highly protective of his Explorers circles (neither marketers nor journalists may attend), so he created separate testing circles called “sponsored explorations” of commercial products – with the consent of participating explorers.

He also pens the blog Science To Profits, and hopes eventually to make Longevity Explorers a money-making venture.

As Caro continues to walk the tightrope between technology and humanity, his explorers compliment his skills in both realms.

“He’s a good listener,” says Davis. “He’s generous with what he knows.”

“For a physicist,” agrees Connolly, “it’s unbelievable how well he handles the group dynamics.”

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