How This 93-Year-Old Product Designer Is Smashing Age Stereotypes
And why Barbara Knickerbocker Beskind hates walkers
IDEO was not surprised to discover that Barbara Beskind was just the type of design consultant the company needed. She had been a world-class problem-solver, serving as a major in the Army, and had a background in occupational therapy. So Beskind understood how to make people’s lives safer, easier and more manageable. And she had incredible energy and enthusiasm.
After working for three years with IDEO, a global design company committed to creating positive impact, Beskind was named a Design Fellow in 2016. She was 92. Her role is focused on designing products for older adults.
Calling All Unicorns
“Barbara is not a unicorn,” explained Gretchen Addi, using Silicon Valley investor and tech entrepreneur-speak to describe something unique. “There are actually quite a few people just like Barbara who bring value and insights that come with age. We just need to find ways to connect with them.”
Many older adults are choosing to keep working in their later years, some out of necessity and others to maintain a sense of purpose and engagement with the world. Beskind, who was named a 2015 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, embodies lifelong learning and proves that older adults can make valuable contributions to society.
Addi was the associate partner at IDEO in 2013 when Beskind wrote a letter to the company's founder David Kelley about adding her talents as a designer and occupational therapist to their team. Kelley had just appeared on 60 Minutes explaining how IDEO’s success was based on its diverse design staff.
A First Meeting
Addi invited Beskind, who was living in San Francisco at the time, to a meeting at IDEO headquarters in Palo Alto.
Beskind had recently been diagnosed as legally blind from age-related macular degeneration; she must depend solely on her peripheral vision. But that didn’t slow her down. She used the resiliency, independence and self-motivation she had learned as one of only 34 women given an U.S. Army commission in 1947, and took public transportation for the 30-mile trip.
“The team I worked with at IDEO — all who had master’s degrees and Ph.D.s — was very receptive to having a 90-year-old consult on their designs, and they accepted me as an equal,” Beskind told me as we sat in her spacious independent living apartment in Pasadena. “Their respect and eagerness to have me collaborate with them was tremendously important to me.”
Even when Beskind moved from the Bay Area to Southern California following her stepson’s career move, the IDEO team worked with her to have Beskind’s work days at Palo Alto become quarterly in-person meetings, a reduction from the monthly meetings she had previously.
Beskind believes her designing inspiration came from her upbringing during the Great Depression in the 1930s when she had to make her own clothes and toys.
“During the Depression everyone became a designer — being a problem-solver was a necessity,” said Beskind.
But she also credits her parents and heritage with inspiring her life of managing adversity with creativity. In her book, Powder Keg (published under her maiden name, Knickerbocker), she relates the story of her youth.
Her father, an original employee of the FBI, was laid off when she was 7. He remained out of work for years, suffering from debilitating depression. Her mother’s stress over the family’s financial plight and the need to move her family in with her mother-in-law impacted the young Beskind.
During those austere days in a cramped household, Beskind’s mother taught her about the family’s history as Belgian Walloons from the Burgundian Netherlands, persecuted during the Reformation of the 1500s. Her family also taught Beskind that prestige doesn’t always mean prosperity or a perfect life.
Familiar With Adversity
Beskind grew up near Hyde Park, N.Y., where as a young girl she met President Franklin Roosevelt on the roadside traveling on his way to his country estate.
“I witnessed adversity firsthand — in my family and even in the President,” she said, referring to Roosevelt’s disability. “I realized that even though you have tragedy, sadness or intolerable situations, you can learn from every experience.”
She also learned about responsibility and self-reliance, two things she feels need to come together in an aging society.
“Businesses have a responsibility to reach out to older workers and advisers,” she stated. “But older people need to do the same by reaching out and pursuing roles that keep you engaged and relevant.”
Addi, who currently serves as designer in residence for Aging 2.0 (a global innovation platform to improve the lives of older adults), adds that “more businesses are starting to understand that older voices can be extremely relevant in the workplace because they know how to fix problems experienced over a lifetime. That experience is crucial to business success.”
Design for Life
Beskind, who participated in the White House Conference on Aging in 2015, was acknowledged by Next Avenue as having one of the best quotes from that event: “Design with, not for.” And as she told the Today Show that same year, “I finally achieved my childhood dream of becoming a designer… it just took 80 years.”
Beskind’s consulting projects at IDEO run the gamut from senior housing and long-term care community design (“the stories I could tell about my time in an assisted living facility for rehabilitation after a fall are worse than surviving basic training in the Army,” Beskind quipped), innovative low vision ideas and mobility solutions. Her role is focused on designs that are workable and practical but also creative, for people with physical limitations.
One example Beskind shared with me is a story about a gentleman in her independent living community who used a walker, but became anxious and a bit fearful when people approached him from behind since he could not see them. Beskind recommended an easy solution. She bought a couple of bike mirrors and affixed them to the handles of his walker.
Questioning Walkers, Recliners
While she solved the walker dilemma for her friend, Beskind’s expertise as an occupational therapist led her to rail against typical aging tools. For instance, she believes walkers and recliners should essentially be outlawed.
“Walkers are the worst possible design for posture, making you bend, which creates more physical problems. And most older people I know don’t really need them,” shares Beskind.
For her own balance, Beskind eschews the walker for stylish ski poles she has customized. “These are better and fit my motto of ‘Stay vertical, move forward and keep an inquisitive mind.’”
She says that recliners are also on her “avoid” list because they put pressure on the calves that can lead to blood clots and people sit in them too long. She says an ottoman and a regular chair are a much better solution and that people should try to get up and move every hour.
Most Important: Attitude
But mostly her prescription for a longer, better life has to do with attitude. Beskind's advice to those of any age is to interact with different generations, maintain humor (even in darker moments) and pursue lifelong learning.
At a recent gathering of Cal Tech college students, she told them to make friends with those a generation younger and a generation older than themselves and maintain these age-diverse relationships throughout their lives.
Beskind also shared with the college students that life is a puzzle. She said so many of her opportunities just came together in mysterious ways because she was willing to take a risk.
For instance, it was serendipity that she read The New York Times advertisement in 1945 that led to her joining the Army and becoming an occupational therapist.
After her Army career, her need to continue helping people led Beskind to become a business entrepreneur. She started the first freestanding occupational therapy practice in the U.S., treating learning disabilities in children and adults. She also studied Russian art and painting, joined a writer’s workshop at Bennington College in midlife, married and raised two stepsons. The fact that one of them lived near San Francisco, leading her to move there, in turn led Beskind to IDEO and working with designers 60 years younger than herself.
Working with Limitations
“What inspires me about Barbara is that she is very open about her limitations based on age, but she doesn’t feel the need to apologize for them,” said Addi. “She has leveraged technology and good old-fashioned gumption to make up for any limitations. We need to support that behavior more as a society.”
Beskind herself sums up a life full of learning and achievement this way: “Maintain an individual identity and never stop being a problem-solver. You’ll be amazed how that self-worth actually improves your health and adds years to your life.”
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