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Hey, great-looking grab bar!

Who says functional can't be stylish? Aging boomers demand chic.

January 24, 2008|Joe Robinson | Special to The Times

IN this youth-obsessed culture, looking to the AARP crowd for style cues is a highly subversive act.

But a growing number of companies directed to the needs of seniors are fomenting just such rebellion, insisting that home design doesn't stop at geezerhood or the first hearing aid.

We're no longer stuck with grim, all-function, no-aesthetic medical supply fare that adds insult to infirmity. Seniors and others now can choose from an array of chic aids that don't make them feel as if they've just been discharged from intensive care.

Leading the charge are websites such as Elderluxe and Gold Violin, as well as legendary architect and industrial designer Michael Graves, who is introducing a line of tub bars, canes and other aids for daily living that are sleek and modern.

Need a hand with the groceries? Forget that decrepit granny cart that looks as if it came from Woolworth's in 1962. Upgrade to a black patent leather shopping trolley from Murval of Paris, available from www.elderluxe.com.

"We're saying that aging can be a more positive experience. You can still have a very vibrant and active life," says Patrick Conboy, founder of Chicago-based Elderluxe, a Sharper Image for seniors that sells designer shower chairs, home exercise equipment calibrated for older bodies, high-tech body-fat analyzers and a tricked-out $3,200 scooter that looks ready for the NASCAR circuit.

An estimated 76 million baby boomers are entering Social Security territory, vaunted pocketbooks in hand. With 77% of all personal assets in the U.S. and half of all discretionary spending -- $750 billion, according to a study from Knowledge Base Marketing -- boomers have a walletful of currency, Conboy says.

"This is the biggest consumer generation of all time," he says. "This group has been empowered and engaged with smart ideas throughout their lives. It's brand-sensitized and does not suffer bad design well."

He has a hunch that boomers' aversion to products that scream "over the hill," combined with their love of luxury, will favor his 2 1/2 - year-old venture. A former executive at JCPenney, Conboy saw a graying market in search of products that united design sensibility and style with golden-year needs. On a scouting trip to Europe, he discovered a trove of items for seniors with a taste for the modern, and Elderluxe was born.

"Absolutely, seniors can be cool," says Connie Hallquist, founder and president of Gold Violin, a website and direct-mail catalog firm out of Charlottesville, Va., offering hands-free hair dryers, lighted magnifying lamps and more. "When you think of how important style and brands are for teens and baby boomers, it's the same for seniors. They want to do everything they've done earlier in their life."

Gold Violin gives design and fabric advice to manufacturers, persuading one company to change its antiseptic shower seats from white to teal and peacock blue hues. Long before it was fashionable, the firm hired couturiere Pauline Trigere to design a line of signature products that included walkers and an ostrich-leather pill case.

"This woman was sexy in her 90s," Hallquist says of the late fashion designer. "She was full of life and very robust."

Hallquist cites the growing airtime allotted to home-assistance products on cable TV channel QVC, where a quarterly in-home care program now runs monthly. Gold Violin has its own quarterly program on QVC and recently rolled out products at Wal-Mart and Longs Drugs.

The market will get a major push when Princeton, N.J.-based Michael Graves & Associates launches an ambitious line of modern home-care aids.

Best known to many consumers for his line of housewares at Target, Graves was struck by a virus in 2003 that ravaged his spine, left him paralyzed from the waist down and put him in a wheelchair. A man who had devoted his life to beautifying surroundings found himself amid depressing hospital-room medical devices.

With a sense of mission, he created the Michael Graves Solutions line, previewed at a home healthcare trade show last fall (though no launch date has been set yet). Product sketches showed elegant tub grab bars with chalk blue grips, bright orange adjustment knobs and recessed surfaces for soap. For those with arthritis, a cheery shower head moves with the touch of a palm and doubles as a scrub brush. The line also includes reacher-grabbers and lighted bed assist rails.

LIKE most baby boomers, Rhonda Thomas, 53, finds herself in a demographic she can't quite swallow.

"I'm not totally embracing this senior status," says Thomas, a freelance writer in Takoma Park, Md. "A lot of us are really not like our parents." But she has bought several items from Elderluxe, including the doctor-designed Ultimate Bed Lounger. "You just get something to live your life better with these products," she says.

Boomers' antipathy to codger-dom is forcing marketers to get what all seniors know: Nobody wants to buy stuff that makes you feel like Methuselah.

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