Are You An Astronaut of Life?

December 11, 2022

Are You An Astronaut of Life?

May 29, 2023

I grew up in Turkey in a culture that reveres its elders. When I was 20 yrs old, I ran away from that culture under the guise of studying abroad and arrived in New York City. Here what I found, instead, was a society that revered its youth. And sure enough, the States embraced me as a young designer and gave me incredible opportunities.

It was only later, when my parents started aging, that I again became interested in older people. We were three women collaborators—Leah Caplan, Seda Evis, and me—sandwiched between our older parents and younger kids. We realized that while the market was overflowing with designs for kids, there was little good design for our parents. We decided to do our research and see if anyone else was interested in the aging space.

Through a grant from The SCAN Foundation, a non-profit devoted to transforming care for older adults, we were given the opportunity to explore these questions. This work took us across the United States for a year, from New York to LA to Mississippi, as we asked older people to be a designer for a day.

Long life is a new phenomenon. Think of your grandparents or great-grandparents. Fifty years ago, people rarely lived past their sixties. Living into one’s seventies was considered the mark of a long life. Today, seventy feels young, eighty feels normal, and ninety is within reach.

A good metaphor can always help us to think differently, and we coined a new one during our research—as Seda Evis noted, older people are Astronauts of Life, going where no one has gone before.

These people have incredible endurance, vigorous training, and loads of courage as they explore this new time in their lives that has opened up due to advances in health care and relative peace in many parts of the world.

If you are reading this article, you are either an Astronaut of Life or one in training.

I have come full circle. I realize what a gold mine my elders are, and again, I revere them. They’re my rock and my guides.

I also have my kids, who are still teenagers, my students, and the young designers in our studio. And following the advice of one of our research participants, I practice having friends who are nine years younger than me and nine years older.

We have become a design studio that co-designs with older and younger people, teaching our clients why intergenerational collaboration is a game-changer. It is the future of design and, frankly, our society.

I revere my elders and worry about what I will do when they’re no longer here. And then, I think of my kids and my students and I am filled with hope.

Ayse Birsel is the author of Design the Long Life You Love, a love letter to her mom, daughters, and young and older people everywhere.

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