If you think most seniors spend their days rocking on their front porches and regaling stories of their youth, think again. The fact is, most seniors remain active, including those who face mobility issues.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, for example, more than 40 million seniors in the United States are licensed drivers. That's an increase of more than 50% (from 1991 to 2015). One of the reasons more seniors are on the roads than in past years is an auto industry that's providing new and innovative solutions to the more common mobility issues many seniors face.
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A Win-Win Scenario
Of course, car companies aren't providing mobility accommodations for purely altruistic reasons. After all, they're in the business of selling cars, and the rapid spike in the number of senior drivers represents a demographic they'd be unwise to ignore. At the same time, however, the nature of competition within the auto industry is such that the companies which provide the best solutions are the ones most likely to succeed—and that's a good thing for seniors.
The Best of the Best
Increased competition among auto makers to win the trust of senior drivers is a topic much discussed within the industry, and among those who assess which companies have found the best solutions. It's one of the reasons, for example, that Consumer Reports (CR) now publishes an annual review, "Top 25 New Cars for Senior Drivers."
They assess cars based on several issues of critical importance to seniors, including:
Ease of access: CR considers issues like step-in heights to accommodate seniors with physical limitations
Enhanced external visibility: the cars that made the top-25 list make it easier to see in front, in back and on the sides
More user-friendly controls: seniors want gauges that are easier to read and controls (like those for heat and AC) that are easier to manage
Better night vision: to accommodate seniors with impaired vision, the best models include more powerful headlights for safer driving at night
This year's "best of the best" list finds the Subaru Forester, the Subaru Outback and the Kia Soul rounding out the top 3—but those rankings will undoubtedly change as auto makers hit upon even more innovative approaches to design and engineering, like the one adopted by Ford.
Walking in Someone Else's Shoes: The "Third Age Suit"
One of the challenges for engineers is experiencing driving the way seniors do, taking into account, in other words, the specific challenges they face. Ford found a simple and effective solution: its "Third Age Suit," which simulates those challenges for designers and engineers. As A Place for Mom explains:
"The suit is worn by Ford's engineers to simulate physical conditions experienced by customers and exemplify how these limitations impact a customer's overall experience with the vehicle. The suit is designed to limit mobility especially around the joints (ankles, elbows and knees). The range of motion is also limited when wearing the suit, making it difficult to shift weight from one foot to the other and almost impossible to fully turn the head to check blind spots."
To further accommodate vision impairment, the suit comes with a pair of goggles which allows the wearer to experience sight the way seniors with glaucoma or cataracts do. In addition, there are special gloves that simulate the effects of carpal tunnel syndrome and Parkinson's Disease.
The Results Are In
Ford's "Third Age Suit," now in use for more than 20 years, has been much more than an academic exercise. It's goal from the outset was to enable life-improving design changes that will make driving easier and more enjoyable for seniors. Design changes already in place include bigger doors, raised buttons and controls, seat belts that are easier to fasten, gauges which are easier to read and windshields that widen field of vision.
Seniors—and those who care for them—want to improve their lives and remain active and vital now and in the future. Fortunately, businesses recognize their increased numbers and purchasing power and are responding with innovative design solutions that help them do just that. Ford's "Third Age Suit" in this sense represents the wave of the future, a future in which seniors are taken more seriously and can more easily find accommodations which improve the quality of their lives.