Why Canes and Walkers Are Getting a New Look

A wave of startups and investors are starting to listen to older people’s demands for more effective—and attractive—equipment

A lightweight, carbon-based rollator from byACRE of Denmark. The company’s founder previously designed strollers. BYACRE

Older people have long complained that products designed for them are clunky and unattractive.

Now investors and inventors are starting to listen to their complaints.

As the population of people 65 and over grows, so does their spending power in the marketplace—and designers are taking notice. More companies are offering walkers, canes and other products that deftly assist the elderly—and are stylish at the same time. And investors are helping more of those businesses get to market.

The boomer generation is the first to wield its considerable spending power to reject bad design, says Patricia Moore, an industrial designer. As a 20-something in the 1970s, Dr. Moore disguised herself for a year as an octogenarian to fully understand how design fails older people.

“We were the ones always fighting for social change and looking good doing it,” says the designer, now 67 years old. “Now the medical model of aging doesn’t suit us, and we’re using consumer choice to drive the change.”

Speeding up evolution

Products such as walkers and canes have been slow to evolve aesthetically over the past century as designers focused largely on products for their young, mobile peers and largely ignored the desires of the elderly, says Chris McGinley, a senior research fellow at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design in London’s Royal College of Art.

But, Dr. McGinley says, a shift in the way design thinking is taught in schools—as well as the slow death of the “superstar, egocentric designer”—has meant the needs and desires of older people are now being considered by those who develop products for them.

“Research-and-design ethnography methods that teach people to understand the end-user experience seemed quite niche 10 or so years ago; now, they’re a part of most good design courses,” Dr. McGinley says.

When designers ask older people what they want from products, the answer is often simple: to not look like something a frail, invalid person would use, says Don Norman, a former Apple designer. Now 84 years old, he believes designers too often equate age with poverty.

“Don’t we all find more attractive furniture or clothing and pay a bit more for it throughout our lives?” he says. “Why should it be different for this time in life?”

The request for a cool-looking walker or a well-designed long-term-care facility goes deeper than vanity, says Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer of AARP, who used a cane herself for a number of years after a car accident in 2011.

“We have to address the damaging imagery of aging: Old-fashioned mobility and medical devices can turn you into an object of pity,” Dr. Yeh says. “When you bring a sense of design and beauty and aesthetics to them, people will talk about them, and people will talk to you—it becomes a way to connect.”

This group has power in numbers: In 2018, there were 52 million Americans over the age of 65, a figure that will nearly double to 95 million by 2060, according to the Census Bureau. And Boston Consulting Group projects that Americans over 55 will account for half of all domestic consumer-spending growth from 2008 to 2030.

Yet Ipsos research found that 82% of those over age 55 say their favorite retail brand no longer understands them or what they need. This feeling of alienation—plus a rise in internet literacy among seniors—is pushing the demographic to seek out and spend their money with brands that cater to their aesthetic needs, says Brian McMahon, founder of design research collective Segment International LLC.

“The idea that older folks are more brand loyal is an outdated view,” he says.

Many of the companies older adults are turning to have gotten into the niche fairly recently. Danish design house byACRE ApS, which made its retail debut in 2018, is producing carbon-based rollators—walkers with wheels—as a sleek and lightweight alternative to the heavy-duty aluminum offerings sold in mobility shops. The Danish company has sold roughly 12,000 units since its launch, to customers in the U.S., Japan and Australia.

Founder and chief executive Anders Berggreen was previously chief executive of Seed, a studio that sold high-end baby strollers. He began adapting his design skills for the senior market after someone at a design fair commented on the similarity between strollers and rollators.

Ten years ago byACRE wouldn’t have existed, Mr. Berggreen says. “Older people are using the internet more and googling ‘stylish rollator’ and finding us,” he says.

Another big change: End users are primarily making the purchases, he says. Previously, it was children or caregivers who did the buying, and simply chose whatever was on offer in mobility stores—which meant ease and good looks weren’t always prime considerations.

Accessible kitchenware from Eyra Stores of London. The company was started by two sisters frustrated by the lack of stylish options suitable for their mother.

PHOTO: EYRA

Some startups are looking beyond medical accessories into consumer products. One young company, London-based Eyra Stores Ltd., began life in 2018 when Susan Costello and her sister struggled to find a two-handled cup for their 86-year-old mother, whose hands tend to shake. Unable to find anything that was aesthetically pleasing, they decided to make their own line of stylish, accessible homeware by joining with established designers. The company plans to release its first set of utensils—from British designer Sebastian Conran—next year.

The company has presold more than 200 sets via a Kickstarter campaign, and aims to sell more on another platform over the next few months, Ms. Costello says.

Ms. Costello’s research found a segment of high earners who “have spent years filling their beautiful homes with gorgeous things, and are reluctant to mess them up with plastic, beige products.”

What the public wants

A handful of investors are also taking notice of the market up for grabs. Venture studio Alive Ventures raised $12 million in funding in July. It aims to build six to eight companies for older people a year, with the first set to make its debut in the first quarter of 2021.

Mr. Zapolski says he spent the past 12 months traveling around America’s suburbs and rural areas, asking what kinds of products older people are looking for. “I realized most of what ends up getting created for older people isn’t really what they want: It’s somebody else’s idea of what they ought to want,” says Mr. Zapolski, who previously worked as a user-experience executive for Yahoo. “I think that’s because in society’s public imagination, it’s been difficult to think about ourselves as getting older.”

Another investment outfit, Primetime Partners, was set up in July by veteran investor Alan Patricof and health executive Abby Miller Levy. The seed and early-stage venture-capital fund says it will focus on products and experiences for older adults—including an e-commerce company for things like bedpans, guardrails and ramps—and invest in older adults who are forming new companies.

“It’s our responsibility and opportunity to build and invest in products, services and technologies for older adults—a sector that has long been ignored by venture-capital money,” says Mr. Patricof.

Some advocates for seniors are encouraged by what they say is long-overdue interest by companies and investors. That includes Dr. Moore, the industrial designer, who is now edging close to the age she once pretended to be.

“The real work is yet to be done, but it is being done, and it’s being done because we have this new generation of sensitive thinkers who are using head and heart to make a difference,” she says. “That’s why I’m really excited about what comes next.”

Ms. Deighton is a Wall Street Journal reporter in London. Email her at katie.deighton@wsj.com.

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