Will you still need me, will you still feed me, When I’m 64?

I recently received my copy of Dialogues, a book encapsulating the TANGO (towards a new intergenerational openness) design programme I was involved with last year at l’école de Design Nantes Atlantique.

book cover

The programme, a series of workshops, an exhibition, and finally this book, took place between 3 design schools. The workshops focused on the subject of  “Understanding and Connecting with me as I get Young” and in particular intergenerational empathic relationships, my role, specifically to research and present relationships, love and sex in a transgenerational context.

It was interesting working with young students around this subject. We were not prepared for their “surprised” reactions to older people still having loving, sexual relationships. The research I carried out for my lecture was taken from around the world, I was shocked, for example when researching how couples or “lovers” are treated in retirement homes in America, where there is very little intimacy, sexual relationships are frowned upon, and indeed, are not catered for at all (even down to having a double bed available?) and the stigma attached to older people in this social context.

We all have our own taboos about sex, we build up prejudices, we find it difficult to talk about even with our peers, so how were the students to embrace this subject? They took a softer look at for example how our senses change and how they could be enhanced as people age, how our prejudices block older people from demonstrating their feelings in public, a different regard on the whole subject.

The students also carried out lots of research around the subject in terms of the physical problems – how do you get to know another after maybe years of living alone, touch another, get on and off a bed if you have difficulties moving your body etc… soon, slowly, by slowly they became, very interested and broke down their own barriers on the subject.


There are some aids to help students like (AGNES) the Age Gain Now Empathy Suit to allow young people to feel like they have an aging body. There is also the Empathy Belly suit to allow teenagers to really know what it’s like to be pregnant (and hopefully encourage them to use safe sex approaches). But we wanted our students to develop their own empathy tools, and not always physical. For example, what is memory loss like? To demonstrate, we took away their digital devices for 3 days. How did they manage without their digital memories? With frustration, at first, but by the end they had found a sort of “liberty”, another “human” way of communicating and a lot more time to work on the project without the distractions that these devices bring.

empathy belly

Before going to meet “older” people, the students had to think about how they could bring trust and confidence to the person they were meeting… one student arrived on crutches and in so doing, formed an immediate empathic experience with the older, less mobile person. One used mirroring techniques. The photograph below, shows a typical warm-up empathy exercise I undertake with students. Over 10 minutes they have to mirror each other very slowly, following each movement with precision. But this isn’t just about movements it’s about looking at people intensely. Noticing things that we don’t notice if we just scan a crowd, look at a group of people. Afterwards the students have to tell us how it felt, what they noticed, how the other person was etc. This can be done very simply, as we all know, when in a meeting by mirroring the person you are in the meeting with – changing position of your hands, your facial expressions, the way you sit, shows a sort of alignment with someone.


To find out more about the Tango Project visit this website

To see my presentation on the subject visit this website

To find out more about the book visit this website

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