Collection No 3

Aging in Place

China’s Aging Population is Facing an Identity Crisis

How can design help?

China has the world’s largest aging population – 135 million people are over the age of 65. The frog Shanghai team wanted to understand how design could help address the needs and challenges the elderly currently face and improve their lives. A piece of research was conducted in nursing homes and senior’s homes, and we held a frogCamp workshop to share and validate the research findings with healthcare industry experts, seniors, caregivers and businesses developing products and services for this consumer.

Our research inspired a provocation: Instead of designing another product that is used by the elderly, what if we designed something that actually made use of the elderly?


I Am My Family

In China, unlike the Western world, there is no concept of the individual or “me” for the elderly.  Identity is firmly tied to family. Self-identity and self-worth are “realized” through contribution and caring for their family. This is why it’s very common to see an elderly person happily taking care of their grandchildren, as this allows them to continue their role as the caregiver in the family.

Mr. Gu is an 85-year-old veteran whose legs were wounded during World War II.  The pain has increased dramatically over the years, so he prefers to sit or lie down unless his family urges him to get up. The only time Mr. Gu would proactively exercise is when he receives his pension, as the money reminds him that as long as he stays alive, he can still “make money” for the family.

According to a 2014 national survey of people in 10 major Chinese cities, aged 50 and older, their average pension is around US$415 per month. That’s not even enough to cover a mid-range nursing home. More importantly, most of them are thrifty and have no concept of consumerism.

Western influences on family values

Traditional family values are changing as the younger generations of Chinese become more independent, and seek more space and privacy from their parents. As a result, the elderly are forced to re-exam and re-define their own value and identify with the additional time they have. Some struggle through this journey of finding out what they like to do, what to spend their time doing, and where they can be of value.  Those who fail to find their new life focus are at high risk of getting depression and dementia. Mrs. Lee, a research participant’s mother, went through many years of depression before she found a volunteering job with a local company. She tried to sign up for classes at her local community school but there wasn’t enough flexibility to accommodate her.

Designing to give seniors more meaningful lives

Can we design a product and service ecosystem that gives seniors a way to contribute back to society, for example, allowing the elderly to provide services such as home cooking, history lessons, traditional crafts, or baby sitting?  By engaging in these activities, the elderly gain a sense of purpose, regain their identity and contribute and care for the family and their local community.

For businesses designing solutions for the elderly in China, it’s worthwhile considering these insights to transform the elderly’s experience, to re-build their identity to support their valuable contribution to their family and community.


Vivian Weng

Vivian is an Associate Strategy Director in frog's Singapore studio. Working closely with frog's creative and technology teams, she tackles strategic issues related to the design process and frames opportunities into broader business context.

Write a Comment

Vivian, really wonderful piece: interesting demographic insight on a population (across geographic boundaries) that tends to get forgotten due to lack of purchasing power and social media influence. Really enjoy the questions raised and hope a financially sustainable solution becomes evident.
Jamie Flannick, 2016-02-13 22:58:30
Very interesting story. I wonder what sort of form these services will take. This reminds me of something I read in a book about Habits, about how people in a nursing home got healthier as they began to get in contact with children, regaining -as mentioned in the article- a sense of purpose and a breaking of their daily pattern that even seemed to heal the brain from decay. The obstacle here is partly to design a simply way [of the product/service] to the convenient use by the elderly. It seems to me as A.I. would do wonders in assisting humans and by-passing the learning curve. I have often put passwords in that category of awful tech, especially for the elderly with little know-how knowledge. It needs a redesign. Anyways, food for thought. Thank you for sharing.
Paul Cohen, 2016-01-26 06:18:32
One way might be to harness their wisdom, to create a sort of "mother of all grandmothers" , an on line accessible by young people, connection to live interviews , maybe on you tube, with wise elders. Plus a way to connect by asking questions that would be answered by elders. Maybe call it. And the elders would relish the chance to share, and leave a legacy of wisdom.
Vince crisci, 2016-01-24 02:15:36

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