The Pied Piper of Hamelin

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Knitting Bonds with Senior Citizens

This is a repost from the portal Living Principles:

Zurich’s Senior Design Factory is a place where the experience and creativity of senior citizens meet with the ideas of two young designers.

Have you ever visited an elderly relative in a nursing home? How often has it been a daunting duty you would have preferred to escape, no matter how much you love the person you are going to see? Retirement homes can be depressing places. What may just be an uncomfortable hourly visit for us, often implies dreary isolation for those that are confined to poor-care residencies for the rest of their lives. In the worst of cases, age makes their residents vulnerable to those that take “professionally” care of them. Even if officials dutifully hurry up to declare a care home scandal about abuse and neglect, such as the recent one at Southern Cross a singular event, googling “nursing home” and “abuse” will tell you a different story. Even in the best of cases, residential care is far away from what we generally associate with the glamour of young fashionable design.

Two young designers in Zurich / Switzerland have started to change this perception. Benjamin Moser (27), and Debora Biffi (31) founded their company Senior Design Factory in 2008  to bring the skills of old people and their own creativity together. Together they design and manufacture products like recipe cards, all kinds of knit wear or funny, aesthetic walking sticks. Have you ever realized how badly designed the little daily helpers for older people are?

40 residents of care homes work for the company, with age ranging from 75 to 90. To date, the company still depends on the sponsorship of several local philanthropic organizations and the public nursing homes, but their business plan aims at reaching the financial break-even in 2012. The outlook is promising. Last year, the project won second place at the renowned Smart Future Minds Awards, which earned them excellent national press coverage and even a mention in the AOL News (filed under “weird news” though).

“Nobody cares about really old people,” says Moser. “Many of them are still in pretty good shape, but nobody is showing love to them.” By designing, creating and selling products together, the old people feel the urgently needed appreciation. The last collection of the Senior Design Factory was quickly sold out. The “senior designers” can choose whether they would like to get paid out their share of revenues or donate the money to the charity associated with the company. Most do not want the money, but prefer to see it re-invested in new projects to turn the factory’s business plan into a real success.

When the factory started, Moser and Biffi worked with the people in the nursing homes because they did not have an own facility. In March of this year they moved to their own building in a trendy quarter of Zurich, which also includes a store. Some of the elderly still work from their homes, others like the idea of coming together in the urban center of Zurich. The quarter is full of young creative people with many design and architecture offices, small IT companies, independent fashion labels and the HubZurich just around the corner – the ideal clientele looking for individual and unique products and keen to find the right places for networking. The Senior Design Factory will add a tiny restaurant to their overall concept this summer and hopes to attract many new customers, young and old, to the factory. They also offer artisan workshops. 

The next knitting workshop, to be led by a young fashion designer and two really senior ladies, will start in June. The majority of participants will be under 30 curious to learn how to knit some trendy fashion accessories and to find some escape from their multi-temporal life schedules. Both sides learn from each other turning the co-operation into a very rewarding experience of mutual fun and respect. The senior designers pass on their old techniques and skills preserving them from oblivion; the younger ones bring in new media, fabrics or combination of colors their older partners sometimes find hard to get used to. In any case, it means that the work slows down much more than at the typical Gen Y working place; a side effect, which may not be bad at all.

It is the first project of its kind in Europe. It certainly does not attempt to be a universal cure for the ageism in Western societies. Yet, it is one little step to overcome the stereotypes of differentiating generations according to their level of work productivity.

Pics: © Senior Design 2011