A tech-savvy volunteer who shares her knowledge with peers; a Tai chi instructor who goes out of his comfort zone to try out new activities; a tenacious senior who strives to maintain her independent way of living.

These are but a few ways the elderly are forging their identities after retiring, and charting out the second stage of their lives.

Hence, to begin understanding the elderly and to design meaningful systems and solutions for them, we must first recognise that our ageing population consists of individuals with a myriad of hopes, aspirations, fears and needs. There is no stereotypical senior.

DesignSingapore Council’s (DSG’s) Rethinking Health and Wellness for the Elderly project grabs this opportunity head-on, studying Singapore’s ageing population and exploring ways to design services and systems that support and empower the elderly.

This is a timely mission too: in just 15 years, one in five Singapore residents will be a senior – our healthcare solutions have to be ready and suitably designed to meet their demands.

 A tale of two studies

(Photo credits: DesignSingapore Council)

How do you design for an ageing population? You start with the user – the elderly – in mind, of course.

DSG’s Asian Insights and Design Innovation (AIDI) team conducted two studies aimed at understanding the needs of Singapore’s elderly, listening to their stories and observing their day-to-day lives. Next came the creative part: workshops where participants – from policy-makers to healthcare practitioners – used these insights to generate ideas to solve real-life problems.

(Photo credits: DesignSingapore Council)


The first publication, Design for Ageing Gracefully, looks at the challenges faced by seniors and how public and health services could be better designed for them. One challenge would be to redesign the healthcare system to be more “human” so that the elderly do not feel alienated.

The second, Empathetic Technology for Ageing, focuses on the opportunities that come with advances in technology: how new technology can be used to address the various needs of our ageing population.  For instance, one concept proposed was a job-matching platform to help the elderly keep meaningfully engaged.

Know your elderly

A key theme undergirding the two publications is that there is no cookie-cutter way to categorise and understand the elderly, and therefore  one-size-fits-all solutions will be unlikely to meet their varied needs.

The stories collected in the studies, however, helped define distinct personas, and in doing so identified some common needs faced by seniors in different segments. This makes it easier to ideate and create solutions for specific groups of seniors.

Those stories, compiled into videos, also put a human face to the elderly user so that workshop participants are better able to empathise while brainstorming.

The duo who led the study on Empathetic Technology, Mr Jeremy Sun, Design Director of Orcadesign, and Mr Ruiyuan Chen, Principal Consultant of Overspective, recounted some stories that stood out.

(Photo credits: DesignSingapore Council)

Elaborating on the idea of empathetic technology, Mr Chen shared how some elderly users feel that some machines and healthcare devices disregarded the dignity of the elderly user. Some monitoring systems, for example, are also designed in a way that “treat [the elderly] as a patient, as fragile, as a subject”. As a result, some seniors they interviewed refused to use the monitors, choosing instead to cover up the sensors.

The challenge then is to design technology that afforded the elderly a more dignified experience and that invited them to take on a more active role in managing their wellbeing: the elderly need to feel as if they are part of the solution, rather than passive subjects.

On the other hand, there are seniors who enthusiastically adopt new technology. Mr Sun spoke of a lady in her sixties who embraced new technology such as smartphones, and volunteered to teach peers who needed more help.

“She took it as a personal dedication to her peers … [These people] become the seeds, the link to introduce technology to others,” he said. “It’s not just about the hardware and software, but how you build a community that makes a solution.”

It takes a village

(Photo credits: DesignSingapore Council)

The need to build a sustainable community is the second overarching insight gathered from the two studies – technology is important as an enabler and a tool, but it is people who make up the heart of the solution.

Mr Michele Visciòla, President of the design consultancy Experientia  that developed Design for Ageing Gracefully, emphasised the need to develop Singapore’s social infrastructure.

“What’s missing is community-oriented services; that should be the real direction to head towards,” he said. “We first need to create a community of people and explore the idea of a community … where people can share resources and time.”

Mr Visciòla gave the example of a caregiver who was experiencing burnout because of the heavy economic and mental strain her responsibilities placed on her. In the future, her problem could be alleviated with stronger community infrastructure that pools all available resources and match them to those in need – time-starved caregivers can take a breather by depending on those who are willing to contribute their time and energy.

Communities could also be a powerful avenue to engage isolated elderly. The trick, according to Mr Sun, is to break into the routine of these elderly folk and bring the community to them.

He elaborated that the current system works well for intrinsically motivated seniors who actively sought opportunities, such as the tai chi instructor who continuously challenges himself to try new activities such as singing contests and acting.

The next step is to engage the elderly who are more passive or reluctant to make changes to their existing lifestyle.

One example the team encountered was an elderly woman who felt lonely and was physically fragile but could not admit that she was facing these challenges – she would rather struggle to live independently than seek help from friends and family.

One proposed idea was to bring everyday services such as grocery shopping to under-utilised spaces such as void decks. These spaces would serve as touch points to increase interaction and develop community, especially for the more isolated elderly.

Designing for the future

So what’s in store for the future?

“70 will be the new 50,” said Mr Chen. To promote active ageing, the vision is to develop stronger infrastructure so that our elderly have more avenues and opportunities to engage with society, develop their aspirations and lead more fulfilling lives.

While many of the concepts proposed in the publications are rough prototypes or works in progress, the two studies provide a fertile basis from which we can imagine new solutions and systems to empower our ageing population, and ultimately better the quality of life in their twilight years. 

This future, is up to us to create.

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