“I watched my Mom’s life get smaller and smaller as she lost her mobility. She lived out on a farm and getting into town to visit friends, see her doctor, and buy groceries just kept getting harder. I helped out as much as I could, but she lived a few hours from me. Now that I’m getting older, I know that I don’t want that. I want to live someplace where it’s easy to see people and get the things I need. My husband though, he wants to live in the country. He thinks the grandkids would love to visit us and play in the woods. I just don’t know about that…”

I was spending my day at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Chantilly, Virginia, talking to customers about their relationships with their houses and what they hoped for from their homes as the got older. Some wanted stay right where they were, others hoped to move to warmer climates. Some planned to simplify their lives by downsizing to smaller quarters, others felt bigger is better and hoped to retire to a larger home in a cheaper location. One woman in her fifties, recently divorced, had just moved across the country to share a home with her best friend from high school.  One woman, shopping for plumbing supplies, said the words that I captured above.

These conversations were part of a Human-Centered Design exercise in which a large number of AARP Foundation staff participated. Over the course of a couple of months, we went out to senior centers, public housing for older people, and grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods, among other locations across the country to talk to lower-income older adults about the problems they face as they age. After gathering insights from these conversations, staff came back to headquarters to create solutions for the vulnerable, older population.

At AARP Foundation, talking to the people we help is an integral part of serving others. Not only does it allow us to better understand the problems they face, but it also forces us to see and respect them as human beings rather than as statistics or data points. While data and research are helpful for understanding the scope of a problem, talking to people, face-to-face, about their own personal struggles, fears and dreams allows us to truly respect their story and ensures we offer them options that protect their dignity and autonomy.

I was honored to be part of a training last week to teach me to better incorporate Human-Centered Design and other strategies for innovation into my work. For the next fourteen weeks, I will be working with a team of four other “innovation champions” to implement these strategies and hopefully identify new programs and products to improve the lives of low-income older adults. I’m very excited for this opportunity. I’m also hopeful that through this project I will not only learn to implement strategies to create innovations but also that I will learn more about vulnerable older people so that my team’s work can help them live their best possible lives.

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