Dream job at 91

By Cathryn Wellner / June 22, 2015
Where some people just see a labyrinth of problems, Barbara Beskind sees a pathway to solutions. "Maze Puzzle" photo by FutUndBeidl, via Flickr Creative Commons

Where some people just see a labyrinth of problems, Barbara Beskind sees a pathway to solutions. “Maze Puzzle” photo by FutUndBeidl, via Flickr Creative Commons


If a company wanted to design high-tech gadgets for the elderly, they would be smart to get advice from someone old enough to understand the challenges of aging. That is what IDEO did with 90-year-old Barbara Beskind.

IDEO is well known for innovative design. When they turned their attention to an aging population, they wanted firsthand knowledge of challenges and needs faced by the elderly. The 90-year-old Beskind applied and was hired.

Her designing career began when she was only eight. It was the Depression. Toys were in short supply. Only by creative use of found materials could she and her mates have the playthings they wanted. Beskind had an inborn penchant for design. Her mates became the happy end users of the old-tire hobby horses she created.

In spite of being told girls could not enroll in engineering courses, she turned a home economics degree into a career as an occupational therapist. As a result of designing therapeutic technology for people with balance problems (and receiving six patents), she had the right set of skills when IDEO began searching for someone to assist them with designing for seniors. The advice turned into a one day a week job.

Beskind not only had personal experience with aging. She had moved into a retirement community, where she had observed the challenges faced by her contemporaries. That gave her ideas very useful to IDEO.

One of the things she witnessed was falls and their aftermath. That gave her the idea to design a sort of airbag for walkers, one that would deploy with a 15-degree lurch. For people having trouble remembering names, she designed eyeglasses with cameras and speakers. They record photos and names of people introducing themselves to the eyeglass wearer and then discretely identify that person the next time he meets them.

And on it goes in what Beskind is calling one of the best chapters of her life.

Age is not the defining factor for intelligence and creativity. While physical and intellectual declines are definitely challenges of aging, they are not universal. We should use whatever gifts and skills we have until we die or become unable to continue utilizing our expertise. Thank you, IDEO, for recognizing the gifts Beskind brings to design and for giving her the opportunity to contribute her creative intelligence. And thank you, Barbara Beskind, for being a beacon for healthy aging.


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