With clipboard in hand, Jef De Smet leaned toward 90-year-old Joyce Thompson to make sure he didn't miss a word. The Ikea market researcher wanted to know all about Thompson's everyday tasks in her two-bedroom apartment.
How did she organize her kitchen? Did she sort and recycle her garbage? What colors did she like?
"These are questions I haven't given much thought to," Thompson chuckled lightly, even as she offered insight into how little she actually uses her kitchen.
The Swedish furniture giant may be better known for its hip back-to-college dorm designs and affordable, sleek minimalist lines for young urbanites. But as the population ages, the international retailer with a value of $36 billion is looking at whether its products could be displayed and marketed more directly to downsizing seniors as well.
The interview with Thompson was one of three that De Smet had recently with residents at Augustana Apartments of Minneapolis as part of a collaboration between Ikea Twin Cities and Augustana Care to learn about the challenges older people face when they downsize or move to assisted living.
The project offers a view into the myriad ways that businesses, communities and governments are preparing for the coming "gray tsunami" as the population ages.
"People want to stay in their homes and in their communities," said Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who is promoting a bipartisan legislative initiative known as Reform 2020 to find more flexible uses for state-federal Medicaid dollars to address the needs of an aging population and save taxpayer money.
"If we can provide more services to seniors, intervene earlier to help them stay in their homes longer, they're going to be healthier," Jesson said. "Furniture is just a piece of that, but it's an important piece."
The 65-and-older crowd is now the fastest-growing age group in Minnesota. By 2030, one in four of the state's citizens will be 65 or older, double the number in 2000, according to the state Department of Health. By 2040, the number of Minnesotans 85 and older will nearly triple.
The coming demographic changes are leading to creative new collaborations, such as the Mayo Clinic, which has partnered with Best Buy, General Mills and UnitedHealthcare to work on a "living lab" prototype bedroom, bathroom and kitchen to help seniors enjoy a good quality of life as they age.
"Increasingly product producers and designers have become more aware of the need to make products senior-friendly, through the use of contrasting colors and making them more physically appropriate for people with limited mobility," said Jean Wood, executive director of the Minnesota Board on Aging.
Thompson had lived in the south Minneapolis home she bought with her late husband for more than 60 years. When she broke her hip a year ago, she decided it was time to sell. She moved into an independent living space at the Augustana high-rise, with views of the downtown skyline, on Oct. 1.
"She was very determined that she wanted all new living room furniture," said Sonya Anderson, Thompson's cousin who had worked at Ikea since it opened its Twin Cities store. "That made it much easier to downsize."
Anderson helped spark the idea to work with Augustana Care, a nonprofit senior housing and services organization, to take a deliberate look at the furniture and storage needs of seniors such as her cousin, who often are faced with overwhelming choices as they move into smaller living spaces late in life.
Anderson led her spunky and diminutive cousin through the massive store, near the Mall of America in Bloomington. Thompson picked out a simple mint-green love seat and small bamboo table, which replaced the large, leafed dining-room table that had been a centerpiece of her former home.
One of Ikea's goals is to see how its products could fit into this life transition, said Abbey Stark, communication and interior design manager at Ikea. The market research will include 50 home visits around the Twin Cities with people in various life stages.
"This isn't a huge project, it's a starting point," Stark said. "We wanted to get an understanding of how people are living in different situations and how we can cater to them even more. ... Sometimes it's those simple things you can do on a dime that makes all the difference in the world."
As Thompson pushed her walker into the bedroom to show De Smet her closet, he paid attention to how she reached into it and stored her clothes. He snapped pictures as Anderson, dressed in the bright yellow Ikea uniform, took measurements and made notes.
The two moved systematically through the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen looking for ways to make everyday items more easily accessible for Thompson, who lives independently and gets around just fine on her own.
"Seniors don't always get listened to or asked, 'What would you like to see?'" said Julianne Fries, Augustana Apartments' director of housing, who observed the interview to see for herself how Thompson makes use of her living space. "Outside of health care, they're often forgotten. It's exciting to see retail taking an interest."
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335