Aging Gracefully

The shifting demographics here in the United States, and in Europe, are producing bathrooms that defy the traditional trappings of old age.

America is aging. For the next 18 years, a baby boomer will turn 62 every eight seconds. This shift is not merely demographic; it’s psychological. But is the Woodstock generation ready for old age? Judging from the cultural evidence at hand—Viagra, tummy tucks, trophy wives, Madonna’s boy toys—the honest answer is probably not. Still, baby boomers will inevitably face a moment of reckoning, and for many it will occur in the bathroom, easily the most dangerous room in the house. “If you can’t bathe on your own, you normally have to move into elder housing, so the bathroom becomes an interesting space for the fifty-plus generation,” says Martin Koch, of Kaldewei, a German bath manufacturer new to the U.S. market. “People are willing to invest time and money to modify them in anticipation of future needs.” The good news is that manufacturers are getting a handle on the issue of aging and the bathroom, and they’re creating elegant new products that enhance comfort and safety without sacrificing aesthetics or suggesting (the horror!) old age.

Toto UD Research Center
by Martin C. Pedersen

The Japanese mania for research has produced everything from hybrid cars to consumer electronics of dizzying ingenuity. This love of open-ended exploration extends to the bathroom: in 2006 Toto, the world’s largest toilet manufacturer, established the UD Research Center, a state-of-the-art, stand-alone building dedicated to universal design. The facility, located near Tokyo, remains the only one of its kind in the world.

Toto’s commitment to universal design dates back to long before there was even a term for it. The company introduced Western-style flush toilets in the 1950s, radically improving waste management in the country and quickly popularizing the brand. “One day in the 1960s,” Yuko Eto, general manager of the center, wrote in an e-mail, “after the widespread adoption of TOTO’s toilets, a customer in a wheelchair sent us a letter, which stated that our toilets were not easy for him to use.”

To better grasp the nature of the problem, the company sent its design teams into the field to visit wheelchair-bound customers and observe their lives. “As a result, TOTO’s process—in which our designers and developers must completely understand our customer’s needs by actually meeting with, talking to, and monitoring their use of products during design and development—was established,” Eto wrote. The company further ex-panded its research efforts in the 1990s by founding the Silver Research Center to study the elderly and (years ahead of the curve) building a large nanotechnology laboratory.

Located next to the lab, the UD Research Center employs 50 or so researchers covering a range of fields: engineering, architecture, ergonomics, psychology, and gerontology. Its principal goals are development (testing prototypes and competitors’ products), research (analyzing a diverse group of bathroom users through videotape and interviews in order to generate ideas for new products), and education (giving designers and product developers a firsthand understanding of how customers interact with the bathroom). For example, designers will wear simulation suits (weighted at the joints to reproduce the elderly’s reduced range of motion) and then perform tasks in the bathroom. Other simulations involve replicating blindness and impaired vision.

According to Valerie Fletcher, executive director of the Institute for Human Centered Design, in Boston, who attended the center’s opening ceremonies three years ago, the Toto initiative is part of a larger cultural phenomenon. “For the Japanese, the fact that they are the oldest society in the world, in terms of demographics, is considered a national priority,” she says. Consequently, universal-design research is not limited to the bathroom but involves virtually every aspect of daily life. The International Association for Uni­ver­sal Design (an overwhelmingly Japanese organization) includes about 150 large Japanese companies that, Fletcher says, “pay a significant amount of dues,” which are partly directed to common research initiatives. It’s a unique practice that underscores the country’s demographic reality. “Issues of universal design are so significant as a national priority that it warrants an unusual agreement to share research.”

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