Barbara Beskind smashes stereotypes every time she goes to work. At 94, she is by far the oldest member of the world-famous, human-centered design team IDEO in Silicon Valley. Some of IDEO’s designs include Apple’s first mouse and the Pilates machine. Many of Beskind’s co-workers are 60 or even 70 years younger, but they’re soaking up her life experiences. Beskind’s joined the Army during World War II, and until her retirement as a major in 1966, worked in occupational therapy designing equipment for wounded and polio-stricken soldiers. She went on to open the country’s first independent occupational therapy clinic. Beskind’s joins us for our “5 Questions” feature to explain what companies are missing when they ignore the braintrust of those 65 and older.
Most people beyond a certain age are afraid of putting themselves out there. That’s not you, is it?
Oh, no. I’m always looking for new adventures. I’m 94 years old and very happy. This has been the most wonderful chapter of my life. I never could have believed I would have had this adventure, and I love it.
How did you get the job at IDEO? Silicon Valley companies are notorious for almost exclusively hiring younger employees.
I wrote a letter and told them I had skills that I thought could be of use to them. I’ve always been a very creative person. I’ve been designing since the age of 8. I just felt I could contribute to their organization, and would like to have the opportunity to meet with them. And, a little to my surprise, they took me on.
What projects have you worked on?
At IDEO, I’ve worked on a project involving Medicare delivery services. And I worked on designing contact lenses for the elderly so that they can manage them more effectively. I also worked on a project for Google to redesign the interior of the company’s two-decker buses. I have my own projects I’m designing as well. I have low vision, so I’m constantly experimenting with projects that would improve the lives of elderly people who have vision problems, like myself. One of the things I’m really anxious to design is a fall-protection device, because falling is the biggest hazard for elderly people. My idea is to create an inflatable belt that would activate at a 15-degree lurch and would cushion the body much the same way an airbag does during an auto crash.
You must be having an impact on all the people in your life. You live in a retirement community. What do the other residents at the community think about your new job? Then, everyone you work with is probably in their 20s or 30s. What do they think of you?
I think it’s been inspiring for my fellow residents just to hear about what I do, even though they can’t engage in the same way. They also enjoy hearing about my daily commute. Our retirement community provides transportation to the train station. I take the train for about 30 minutes, then walk three-and-a-half blocks to the office. At work, everyone accepts me as an equal, which is exciting. When I walk in, everyone gives me a hug. People come and tell me about their projects. We discuss issues. I work with everyone from interns to people with Ph.D.s. Everyone is on an equal level, and it’s exciting because everyone shares one thing: a passion for creativity and problem solving.
Our society lacks role models like you. What’s the moral of your story? Do you think more people would be like you if they knew what was possible?
We have these longitudinal experiences that I bring to IDEO for projects on aging that young people can’t possibly have. When companies ignore those of us over 65, it leads to a wasteland — and we can’t afford to waste that talent. I’ve never stopped learning. I’ve never stopped doing, designing or creating. I start thinking from the time my feet hit the floor in the morning. I value uninterrupted time to think. I have no electronic devices, except for a cell phone for emergency uses. I stay very active. I walk two to three miles a day. I engage with people of all ages, which is exciting, through my church, through my work or just by going out for walks and meeting people.
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