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Designs for Quality Aging

Barbara_BeskindExercise regularly and maintain a suitable diet. Consider your own worth and remain engaged with others. While these thoughts on healthy aging may seem obvious, coming from Barbara Knickerbocker Beskind ’45, they are considerable. Beskind, at age 92, is a conceptual designer at top Silicon Valley firm IDEO, where she works to “recognize the attributes of various technologies and materials and how their use could be applied to solving the problems of aging and low vision.”

Each Thursday she takes a train to IDEO’s office in Palo Alto, California, where she meets with mechanical engineers who engage her on prototypes of her own, such as a dynamic design for a walker. And while this career is relatively new to Beskind, she has spent her life training for this position. “Living in the Great Depression, I witnessed the need for daily problem solving,” she says. “My family grew our own food, raised chickens, and made our own clothes. My first design was a primitive hobby horse made out of old tires.”

Beskind dreamed of becoming an inventor, but as she neared college age, a high school guidance counselor told her the engineering degree required for such positions was unavailable to women. She transferred to Syracuse University in 1943 from Green Mountain Junior College in Poultney, Vermont. “There were 15,000 students, mainly girls, together with 15,000 GIs being fast-tracked in engineering and other skills. Housing was tight,” she says. In the Euclid Avenue house assigned to Beskind and her roommate, their dorm room was the dining room, which was situated six feet from the sidewalk. The pair hung sheets over the windows for privacy. 

A researcher and inventor

In this challenging environment, Beskind studied applied arts and design in the College of Home Economics. “While at SU, I volunteered for two years in the occupational therapy (OT) department at the psychiatric hospital adjacent to campus,” she says. The OT chief later wrote a strong letter of recommendation that led to a career in the Army as an occupational therapist. During her 20 years in the military, Beskind was charged with treating Army personnel along with all of their dependents, and any children who had learning disabilities.

After retiring as a major, she opened a private clinic and began to do “relevant research,” which led her to author a textbook on learning disabilities followed by a patent for six therapeutic items, including an inflatable device to assist with balance.This ongoing drive to help others has shaped Beskind’s approach to aging. In 2013, after watching an interview with IDEO founder David Kelly discussing the importance of workplace diversity, she wrote him a letter and applied for a job with the firm.

Through her position at IDEO, Beskind’s dreams of working with other inventors have come full circle. Beskind, who was recently named an IDEO Fellow, has macular degeneration and must rely upon her peripheral vision, so she draws her design ideas using a thick black pen. Despite her loss of vision, Beskind does not see aging as a limitation; rather she views it as a strength to embrace and designs with solutions in mind. —Melissa Fraterrigo

Image courtesy of IDEO