IN this youth-obsessed culture, looking to the AARP crowd for style cues is a highly subversive act.
But a growing number of companies directed to the needs of seniors are fomenting just such rebellion, insisting that home design doesn't stop at geezerhood or the first hearing aid.
We're no longer stuck with grim, all-function, no-aesthetic medical supply fare that adds insult to infirmity. Seniors and others now can choose from an array of chic aids that don't make them feel as if they've just been discharged from intensive care.
Leading the charge are websites such as Elderluxe and Gold Violin, as well as legendary architect and industrial designer Michael Graves, who is introducing a line of tub bars, canes and other aids for daily living that are sleek and modern.
Need a hand with the groceries? Forget that decrepit granny cart that looks as if it came from Woolworth's in 1962. Upgrade to a black patent leather shopping trolley from Murval of Paris, available from www.elderluxe.com.
"We're saying that aging can be a more positive experience. You can still have a very vibrant and active life," says Patrick Conboy, founder of Chicago-based Elderluxe, a Sharper Image for seniors that sells designer shower chairs, home exercise equipment calibrated for older bodies, high-tech body-fat analyzers and a tricked-out $3,200 scooter that looks ready for the NASCAR circuit.
An estimated 76 million baby boomers are entering Social Security territory, vaunted pocketbooks in hand. With 77% of all personal assets in the U.S. and half of all discretionary spending -- $750 billion, according to a study from Knowledge Base Marketing -- boomers have a walletful of currency, Conboy says.
"This is the biggest consumer generation of all time," he says. "This group has been empowered and engaged with smart ideas throughout their lives. It's brand-sensitized and does not suffer bad design well."
He has a hunch that boomers' aversion to products that scream "over the hill," combined with their love of luxury, will favor his 2 1/2 - year-old venture. A former executive at JCPenney, Conboy saw a graying market in search of products that united design sensibility and style with golden-year needs. On a scouting trip to Europe, he discovered a trove of items for seniors with a taste for the modern, and Elderluxe was born.
"Absolutely, seniors can be cool," says Connie Hallquist, founder and president of Gold Violin, a website and direct-mail catalog firm out of Charlottesville, Va., offering hands-free hair dryers, lighted magnifying lamps and more. "When you think of how important style and brands are for teens and baby boomers, it's the same for seniors. They want to do everything they've done earlier in their life."
Gold Violin gives design and fabric advice to manufacturers, persuading one company to change its antiseptic shower seats from white to teal and peacock blue hues. Long before it was fashionable, the firm hired couturiere Pauline Trigere to design a line of signature products that included walkers and an ostrich-leather pill case.
"This woman was sexy in her 90s," Hallquist says of the late fashion designer. "She was full of life and very robust."
Hallquist cites the growing airtime allotted to home-assistance products on cable TV channel QVC, where a quarterly in-home care program now runs monthly. Gold Violin has its own quarterly program on QVC and recently rolled out products at Wal-Mart and Longs Drugs.
The market will get a major push when Princeton, N.J.-based Michael Graves & Associates launches an ambitious line of modern home-care aids.
Best known to many consumers for his line of housewares at Target, Graves was struck by a virus in 2003 that ravaged his spine, left him paralyzed from the waist down and put him in a wheelchair. A man who had devoted his life to beautifying surroundings found himself amid depressing hospital-room medical devices.
With a sense of mission, he created the Michael Graves Solutions line, previewed at a home healthcare trade show last fall (though no launch date has been set yet). Product sketches showed elegant tub grab bars with chalk blue grips, bright orange adjustment knobs and recessed surfaces for soap. For those with arthritis, a cheery shower head moves with the touch of a palm and doubles as a scrub brush. The line also includes reacher-grabbers and lighted bed assist rails.
LIKE most baby boomers, Rhonda Thomas, 53, finds herself in a demographic she can't quite swallow.
"I'm not totally embracing this senior status," says Thomas, a freelance writer in Takoma Park, Md. "A lot of us are really not like our parents." But she has bought several items from Elderluxe, including the doctor-designed Ultimate Bed Lounger. "You just get something to live your life better with these products," she says.
Boomers' antipathy to codger-dom is forcing marketers to get what all seniors know: Nobody wants to buy stuff that makes you feel like Methuselah.
"It used to be OK to have phones with super large buttons and really big, bright flashers," says Michelle Maher, national sales manager for Clear Sounds, a manufacturer of phones and TV devices that assist hearing. "But we really have seen a demand for products to look more tech-savvy, more current. The design is very important. It has to be functional but very stylish at the same time. It has to look and feel like products people are used to."
From the dawn of self-consciousness, we're all in the downplaying business, accenting the best features and camouflaging the rest. It's no different at 85, says Bea Anderson, a retired schoolteacher in St. Joseph, Mo.
"I think you should have some choices and style as you get older," says Anderson, who got an Elderluxe necklace with a concealed magnifying glass from her daughter. "They think you don't care about your appearance and that we don't have a lot of pride. But that's not true at all."
"YOU know you're getting older when your body starts to wiggle and you're standing still," says Lola Gillebaard, a woman who knows of what she quips after having her hip surgery a few years ago. But this seventy-something stand-up comedian and "motivational humorist," who drives an orange VW Beetle with flames painted on the side, isn't ready for a cane. So her husband, Hank, invented a hipper alternative: Fashion Stix -- high-tech, carbon-fiber poles in 12 colors to match any outfit, with a handle that looks like a ladybug.
"Canes are ugly and make you look old; this is pretty," says Lola, holding a purple model on the balcony of the Gillebaard home, which is perched like a tree house over the wilds of Hobo Canyon in Laguna Beach. "It makes me feel like earrings feel. It's the finishing touch."
Lola finds laughter the best medicine to remain young. On a DVD with outtakes from her show, Lola tells a crowd ever so slowly in her North Carolina drawl, "Here we are in our golden years and things have finally calmed down a bit. And then some idiot goes and invents Viagra!" The audience erupts in laughter.
Just as her joke appealed to young and old alike, more than a few of the products designed to make life easier for seniors can work for a wide demographic. Like the Smart Shopper, a voice-recognition device that takes your order when you look into the fridge and find you're out of something. At the end of the week, it prints out a grocery list. Or the bed shaker, a second line of defense that works as effectively for chronic oversleepers as it does for the hearing-impaired.
The advent of senior styling does puncture one long-held assumption -- that the wisdom of years finally allows one to dispense with the style chase. But marketers, and customers, see the extra attention paid to seniors as something that can boost esteem for a group largely written off as irrelevant.
"Seniors have been taken for granted," Anderson says. "These products are nice because they're well above the normal grade and you wouldn't be ashamed to have them."