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A Shoe Story with Aunt Nessie

An interview with my 79 year-old aunt who finds freedom and independence from wearing shoes she knows will prevent her from falling.

Photo of Kira Lucretia Powell
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Having fallen several times due to incorrect shoes, Aunt Nessie prides herself in finding shoes that, “really work” in preventing falls.

Me: Auntie, what do you look for in a shoe to help prevent you from falling?

Aunt Nessie: Well, where am I going in these shoes?

From my initial interview question it became clear that the term “shoe” in the singular was too limiting to understand the full magnitude of what shoes mean to my 79 year old aunt and possibly others like her. Shoes represent freedom, physically and mentally. Aunt Nessie is independent - she drives, does her own grocery shopping, laundry, cooking and cleaning. She often cares for her 81 year old brother who she cooks and cleans for as well.  She workouts out regularly by taking walks in the park, walking on her treadmill at home, or a stretching video she’s found on YouTube.  She is also vegan.  Seemingly always full of energy and on the move, Aunt Nessie says she needs shoes to “match [her] pace.”

Over the course of our FaceTime interview, she showed me a plethora of shoes that she felt supported her foot and therefore would reduce the likelihood of her falling.  If she was going out for dinner or the theater she had a shoe with slight heel but a wide toe box. They were a “Mary Jane” style shoe, costing $175, that she said looked nice and and was mostly comfortable and soft, but didn’t have enough cushioning in the heel area which made her shift her foot more to the front of the shoe. Although she felt very secure in the shoe, the lack of cushion meant she could only wear them for short periods of time. 

As she started describing the next pair of shoes, she interrupted herself and talked about a website she frequents called “FootSmart”.  The site is designed with the elderly in mind and has a feature (Aunt Nessie’s favorite) that enables the consumer to purchase a shoe based on foot ailment.  Most of my aunt’s foot ailments are a result of her hammertoes.  Under the “Ailment” tab the site explains what a hammertoe is and has a link from the definition to purchase products that will accommodate the condition and provide the most comfort.  

Her favorite shoe, is made by Merrell. She has purchased two pairs at $120 each. She loves them because, “they make [her] foot feel secure, with its extra layer of cushion in the heel.” The toe box, she said, “is also wide enough for her toes to fit comfortably, but not too wide - which she has found also leads to falls and mis-gauging foot width and step stride.” The only down side she says is, “they ain't cute.” So she only wears them for walking around the park and being in the house.

After discussing several other pairs of shoes it occurred to me that each shoe had its own great qualities in one area, but significantly lacked in another area.  Whether it was comfort, aesthetics, length, or width my aunt was never completely satisfied with one shoe.  Although, I share my aunt’s slight obsession for shoes, I do have the privilege to enjoy the experience of wearing a shoe and being fully satisfied with its features as a whole. The importance of having a secure shoe is paramount, however, the self-esteem and independence that a secure and aesthetically pleasing shoe can have may prove just as valuable to the overall wellness and improvement of the quality of life.

From my interview it became clear that some belonging to the elderly community accept their ailments and in turn take pride in finding products that will add safety, comfort, and style to the new chapter of their lives.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Finding and purchasing apparel products continue to add value and confidence and for some the desire of social relevance. It is also interesting to note the amount of money the elderly or their children are willing to spend on shoes. Conducting further investigation of shoe reviews of those in the elderly community can lead to innovative designs and prototypes that can address these issues.

Tell us about your work experience:

NYU Steinhardt Graduate student.


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Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Kira for this great interview with your aunt Nessie. It adds one more interesting piece of information to the "shoe thread" that emerged during the research phase. :-) It's amazing to see how much thought your aunt put in choosing and analyzing her shoes. I love how you highlighted the multi-faceted nature of the shoes: "it became clear that the term “shoe” in the singular was too limiting to understand the full magnitude of what shoes mean to my 79 year old aunt and possibly others like her. Shoes represent freedom, physically and mentally. " Looking forward to seeing how it will inspire ideas in the upcoming phase.

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

This is a great post Kira! Thanks for sharing. I think this is really important as it illustrates how an older adult will focus, shop, find and use the correct "device", one that fits, when there are options that please them. Shoes are a girl's best friend - like forever I guess!
Also as I read your insight about shoes representing freedom….. I thought there is nothing like being comfortable on one's feet. That made me think. I wonder if walking in shoes that are too small, or too big, might be an empathy exercise for what it feels like to be uncomfortable and unsure on your feet, in general, as an older person might feel?

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

I love the idea of the empathy exercise Bettina Fliegel ! Check the idea that Kira and her team posted inspired by their research