Here's an obscure statistic I just heard: Among elderly women, which ethnicity is most likely to commit suicide, at least in New York?
The reason, according to the Samaritans Suicide Prevention Center, is that these ladies hail from a part of the world that respects the elderly. Then they end up here, where being old is a crime.
You can tell it's a crime, because we make the elderly wear prison gray. Look at their aluminum canes: gray. Metal crutches: gray. Most of the walkers: gray. Sure, aluminum is lightweight and durable, but must it also be utterly devoid of design and cheer? I see old folks valiantly shuffling down the sidewalk and just don't understand why the whole category of walking aids has yet to be revolutionized like, well, seeing aids. You know glasses.
A century ago, glasses were pretty dull. Then some genius got the idea of jazzing them up and waaaaay overcharging (how much can a piece of plastic cost?) and now you're wearing them. You may even be wearing the kind with lenses that pretend not to be bifocals, but really are. And for this bit of vanity you (or your anachronistically generous health plan) are willing to pay through the nose. It's worth it (though perhaps not to your insurance company), because now you look and feel younger.
But why have failing eyes gotten the modernizing makeover that failing limbs, for the most part, have not? It seems like such a lucrative market: Every single day another 10,000 boomers turn 50. They've got $1.7 trillion to spend.
"How hard would it be for someone to encrust a walker with jewels?" asks futurist business consultant Richard Gottlieb. He envisions a world filled with Harley wheelchairs, Donna Karan walkers even iPod hearing aids. But at the moment, "no one sees the elderly or infirm as having fashion sense," he says. "They write them off as willing to take just about anything."
Isn't it usually the job of American entrepreneurs to realize when a category has been totally overlooked and start making it cool, branded and pricey? (Water, anyone? Sneakers? Mints?) Not that I want to bankrupt the elderly, but why shouldn't they be exploited by trendsetters like everyone else?
A handful of innovators have thought about this, of course. A company called Rollator is making walkers in attractive metallic colors. I saw a woman using one the other day (now that I'm looking, I've seen three in the past week) so I asked, "Does it cheer people up?"
"It cheers me up," she replied.
Another great leap or limp forward is the Walking Assistant, invented by industrial designer Andres Berl about a year ago. After his dad had a hip replacement, Berl made him a cane with a grabber on the bottom, as well as a magnet. That way his dad could pick things up without having to bend down. Berl built a flashlight into the handle, too. But he didn't stop there.
"One thing that I did that increases the cost is, the cane's a little bit thinner at the bottom than at the top, so it looks a little more elegant. The other ones look like sausage."
Such sensitivity to aesthetics and practicality has helped Berl sell more than 200,000 canes through infomercials and QVC.
Once we start treating old people as a valuable market, maybe we'll start treating old people as valuable, too. Imagine that.