Does feeling useful help women cope with aging?

With a design project you always want to solve a problem. The problem I chose to work on came to me from people close to me – namely people who are about to retire from work, people who have retired some years ago, and those who lost their jobs due to the corona crisis but are over the typical employment searching age.

The adventure has begun for me. I have plunged into my interaction design Master’s thesis process. And at once face the twists and turns of human-centered design that may be frustrating but actually make the work intriguing and fun.
I started out with some hypotheses and some questions like:

  • What would make retired people feel useful and self-confident?
  • How could they contribute outside their family?
  • How can we make the society see older people as an asset instead of liability to the social system?
  • Could sharing their experiences and wisdom with the younger people make them happy?
  • How can I offer a solution with design?

Building empathy with users

Films are one of my passions and therefore it seems like a good place to start the design research, especially as the great Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival is in town.

A documentary directed by Jerzy Sladkowski “Bitter Love” that tells a compassionate story about dreamers of all ages taking the River Cruise on the Volga river is perfect for some initial insights and inspiration. I have never written a film review and will not do it now but would like to express some thoughts that the film evoked from user research point of view.

We are all looking for love

…and doing our best to avoid loneliness, especially as we age. “During the autumn of one’s life there should be someone next to you who knows how much sugar you take in your coffee”, voices one of the 60+ ladies who has come to find a man on the cruise. “TV-s are in every room. I walk from my bedroom to the living room and then then kitchen and turn on the TV-s. This is my life now,” and she dreams of a romance.  

Dialogues held on the boat between the passengers of all ages and both sexes reveal that we may never stop looking for love and companionship. Loneliness is a gloomy and scary perspective. I assume it gets worse as you age because the window of options narrows year by year.

A 46 year old beautiful women who has come to cruise to dwell on her future with or without the husband explains her desperation: “When you feel like a circus dog who has to learn new tricks and perform them, again and again. Why is it so and what is the meaning of life at all?”

For some reason women’s stories resonate more with me. Maybe because I am a woman myself or they just seem to be more vulnerable than the men on the boat.

Trumpettes – age is not an issue that cannot be repaired

As my thoughts are wandering and beginning to circle around women who are on many a brink as they age (grown-up children leaving home, becoming grandparents, retiring from work, thinking of a facelift) another documentary surfaced from my memory: Melania Trump, cet obscur object de pouvoir (this obscure object of power). It is not Melania Trump that interests me but the fierce Trumpettes (adoring Trump fans).

These ladies just don’t let go of their youth. Although grotesque to my eye, the spirit is admirable. It is a great effort to hold on to femininity when naturally your appearance is changing with years. Whether it is denial, lack of self-confidence or power statement, is arguable. But the idea of staying relevant is good and appearance plays an important role here for women. I guess the realisation that men are not looking at you any more (as asexual object) is quite devastating.

So, I was thinking that maybe I will end up with some kind of mentoring app to bring together the old and the young but clearly I was way ahead of the design process. It still needs to be discovered if men and women go through similar processes or not and many many other things. A lot of empathy work ahead.

Will there be some proof that people want to be useful or if any of my other hypotheses is correct remains to be seen. Up until now it looks  we are all looking for love…

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