Packaging for an ageing population

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August 01, 2016

by Becky Taylor


It is no secret that much of the world has an ageing population. Thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, nutrition and hygiene, people are living longer than ever before and this upward trend shows no sign of slowing. Children born in the UK in 2015 are now expected to live an average of 83 years (WHO, 2016), that’s 7 years longer than when I was born in 1991. By 2039 it is estimated that more than 1 in 12 people in the population will be aged 80 or over (ONS, 2015). Accommodating this ageing population poses a great challenge for society at large, but also for product and pack developers whose clientele’s needs change as they age.

Many of the products we use on a daily basis are ergonomically designed to work in perfect harmony with our human bodies. By their nature, these accommodations go largely unnoticed by their users but can be seen everywhere: pack circumferences and widths that fit our grip, ribbed lids to help us open things, tabs and ring pulls we can fit our fingers into, fastenings that are tight enough to preserve the contents but not quite impossible to get into…after a struggle. Designers use anthropometric data to make products that suit the average, but as the average consumer changes design needs to do the same. 

Dr Alaster Yoxall, Principle Fellow in Human Centred Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University, argues that the ageing population is increasingly stimulating pack design innovation. There are a number of deteriorations associated with even healthy aging such as loss of eyesight and strength, and these impact the way in which older consumers interact with packaging. At the dexterous and agile age of 25 even I tussle with packaging on a regular basis, so it seems obvious that older people would have more trouble still.

According to Packaging World, 50% consumers aged 60 to 70 say they struggle with packaging, rising to 60% between 70 and 80, and 66% of over 80s. These are users whose needs are not currently met by pack design, which is concerning. Dr Yoxall highlights that this certainly limits what products the elderly are able to use and consume, which could have negative health implications due to a varied diet being inaccessible. In addition to physical health I would also argue that this likely affects mental wellbeing, as being unable to access swathes of products sends a loud message to older people that brands do not care about them.

As this demographic expands so too will the group’s spending power. As a result, brands need to wake up to the fact that alienating these consumers in order to appeal to younger people will mean missing out on a huge chunk of the market. Designing packaging that allows for universal usage therefore makes good sense from a strategic standpoint, but even without this economic incentive I believe that brands also have a responsibility to ensure that their products are accessible to all.

Click here to read our guide on Making Sense of Packaging