Barbara-Beskind-IDEO

Aging With Attitude: Designer Barbara Beskind

Barbara Beskind’s favorite piece of advice for her older peers is, “Find out what you can do to make life better for others.”

She’s not the self-absorbed type. We had to press Beskind to admit that, yes, her arrival at the global design firm IDEO where she works can cause a stir. Sometimes, an email goes out announcing her presence in the Palo Alto office.

The other day, Beskind found a temp working at the receptionist’s desk. “He said, ‘I know who you are,'” she says. And so did his umpteen Facebook friends back home in Africa.

At 90, Beskind is by far the oldest member of a dynamic team working on what’s known as human-centered design for food, packaging, electronics and, most recently, aging. She is also one of the newest designers at IDEO. She started last July after applying to be part of the firm’s design challenge for products for older adults. That challenge is over, but Beskind’s stint is not. Every Thursday, she travels by train from her San Mateo retirement community to the IDEO offices.

“I’ve retired five times, but it’s like a vaccination that doesn’t take,” she says. Among her careers: 44 years in occupational therapy, 20 of those in the Army. She set up the first freestanding occupational therapy practice in the U.S., launched a lampshade replacement business and has written several books.

Beskind takes a long daily walk using a pair of ski poles she adapted for the job.

After one recent workday, she still had plenty of energy left to respond to questions from Senior Planet.

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Barbara Beskind at her 90th birthday party at IDEO


As a 90-year-old non-designer, how did you manage to land a gig at one of the world’s best known design firms?

I was watching 60 Minutes in January, 2013, and there was an interview with [company founder] David Kelley of IDEO talking about the Design On Aging challenge. I wrote my resume, and rewrote it and rewrote it for about two months. A friend said, ‘You won’t hear for a month or six weeks.’ A week later, I got a call and they said, ‘Can you come for an interview?’

I got there, and there were 35 engineers and designers. I got up to speak and ended up talking for 20 minutes and took questions. They said, ‘What day would you like to come?”

I came on board and didn’t have time to enter an invention for the aging challenge myself, so they asked me to be one of the judges. Now I work with them on their projects. I’m sort of an ad hoc consultant.

Which of your projects so far are you most excited about?

I’m working on a revolutionary type of walker that is much more dynamic than the ones on the market today. My walker inspires the user to maintain a vertical position.

Of my own projects, probably I am most excited about a separate living quarters that would go behind an existing home, for elderly people to live in independently or to be in for end of life or hospice care. There are some on the market, but I have ideas that would be an improvement. I would have an entire panel behind the bed and a plug-in where there could be oxygen availability and blood pressure monitoring.

It would be prefab, the family could assemble it. It would have a chemical toilet, with water and electricity drawn from the house. The company that leases it would have to get all the permits. As soon as the person dies, the family would have to remove the structure.

How do you feel when you’re designing?

On Thursdays when I work in the office, I feel about 30 years younger. On other days, I feel about 20 years younger. I was describing my career to a friend. I said, ‘My career has always been like a layer cake. At IDEO, this is the frosting on the cake.’

Where do you get your ideas?

All  I have to do is sit and watch people. I sit out in the hall of my retirement community and I see how many improvements are needed.

What is your take on today’s technology?

I don’t understand it, but I appreciate it. I have a Life Alert. I have a cell phone, but it’s very primitive – it has voice dial, which I need [due to low vision]. I have an enlarged screen on my computer, which I use for word processing. I’ve written a number of books on it.

What does aging with attitude mean to you?

You have to think outside of the box. Your have to be more than yourself. The world is more important than you are. Having a view of the world that is larger than you helps to maintain a productive, positive, expanded view.

Barbara-Beskind--Aging-With-Attitude

All photos: IDEO 

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16 comments
  • MikiD
    REPLY

    This one brought me to tears.
    I knew I wasn’t the only one out there who had this happen to them, but it’s good to see the bravery in other women when faced with this.

    In 1954 at the age of 17 I enrolled in our nearby state university’s Engineering School, against the strong advice of my college counselor, my parents and everyone else! By the following Spring I had a bleeding ulcer from the cruelty of the male students and teachers. I had no defenses against this kind of treatment. I had never been told that there was anything I couldn’t do and it was quite a shock to run into the real world of discrimination! Finally pulled out the following year in self defense. Have regretted it all my life.

    Check out Peggy Seeger’s song “I Want To Be An Engineer”.

  • Lynette Duncan
    REPLY

    Sooo Inspiring!!! I am a 61 year 35 year old. There are many things I ponder concerning the question of how to age gracefully.
    I can’t think of any better way to answer that than to view another woman who has surpassed my age living life to the fullest.
    I have so much drive and ambition that it becomes increasingly more difficult to find proper friendships in my own age group. This should not be the case. Perhaps your site can help to change that. Bless you! Lynette

    • Barbara, Senior Planet editor
      REPLY

      Lynette, as you’ll see on Senior Planet, you are definitely not alone. Keep checking back for more stories of people who keep living life to the fullest, as well as articles about how to make sure you keep doing so. (See our latest article about free school for seniors!) You might want to sign up for our weekly newsletter so you get all our articles in your inbox.

  • Bev
    REPLY

    Barbara’s idea for a new type of walker would be revolutionary. You know, I would love to find a walker that can be collapsed and carried in a purse or pouch. My back sometimes goes out and I’ve found a walker to be the only way I can get around without extreme pain. It would be a blessing to have a ‘walker’ that I could carry along with me, so if my back would go out I could continue to walk and get myself home : D Have any ideas Barbara?

    • Kathleen Doheny
      REPLY

      Hi, I wrote the story and I found her amazing as well. She just wrote me that she will be moving to the Los Angeles area, where I Iive, in the fall, and would like to meet up. I can’t wait!

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