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Health June 2015

At the Core

Not Your Grandmother’s Comfort Shoes

By Marilyn Cappellino

Maybe it’s changing because the fashion moguls are themselves aging into foot pain. More likely, it’s that the concept of universal design is now blessedly influencing the shoe industry. For whatever reason, mainstream footwear is starting to relieve instead of inflame foot problems. This is a very welcome change.

Finally, the comfort shoe is on trend. HOORAY! The fashion industry’s passion for six-inch stilettos, four-inch platforms, and ultra-pointy toes is waning. At last, older fashionistas are finding more to buy than severely ridged uppers and pancake-thin soles. For anyone managing foot pain, the shift toward shoes both painless and attractive couldn’t come soon enough.

It’s not clear what’s driving the comfort trend. Maybe it’s because 35 million senior Americans won’t buy torturous footwear. Or maybe it’s changing because the fashion moguls are themselves aging into foot pain. More likely, it’s that the concept of universal design is now blessedly influencing the shoe industry. For whatever reason, mainstream footwear is starting to relieve instead of inflame foot problems. This is a very welcome change.

Ever since I can remember, shoes were the most obvious marker of elders. After age 60 or so, a day came when one was directed toward the “comfort shoe,” or the “corrective shoe,” or the “orthopedic shoe.” It was a doctor generally giving the script after noting some podiatric malfunction or stability issue. Whatever the case, that day was a dark one. Comfort shoes, sometimes called sensible, were expensive, style-limiting, and loud. The mere sight of them screeched to the world just how old one was getting.

Now, things are looking up. A stroll around any major shoe store reveals blurring lines between fashion and comfort. In 2015 collections, major designers are featuring good looking shoes with orthopedic wisdom. From moderate priced Skechers to high-end Michael Kors and Cole Hahn, shoes this season are kinder than ever. Even comfort throwbacks to the 70s – like Earth shoes, Birkenstocks and clogs – are jazzed-up and chic again.

In a stylish, albeit sneaky way, the new shoes are relief for many common foot problems. The soft leather and perforated uppers trending this summer are wearable for those suffering hammer toes or bunions. Made from pliable materials like soft suedes, and lacy mesh, they form-fit rather than painfully constrict toes that bulge. The substantial footbeds found in many of the season’s shoes relieve the scattered pains of plantar fasciitis, or falling arches. Even dress shoes and sandals are now made with removable soles allowing custom orthotics to be inserted for optimal and invisible arch correction.

Athletes too are finding relief from back, knee, and heel pain. Golfers, walkers and runners, especially recent retirees with extra time to play, like how the new athletic soles absorb shock formerly sucked up by weakened joints and slipping discs. Big color is also in. The fashion-minded are sporting sneakers in neon pinks and greens as well as artsy patterns, strips and dots. After decades of monotoned doldrums, golf courses and running tracks are perking up with multi-toned happy feet.

It’s not so much that the “in” shoes are now made for styling elders. It’s more that shoes are being crafted with the intent of serving a broader market. As in other market segments, like home construction and automobile manufacturing, shoe designers are learning it makes good business sense to design for full inclusion. If your product only serves 20 somethings, your market loyalty dries up in a decade or so.

When my mother was in her 80s, it got difficult to buy her shoes. She had begun to struggle a bit with balance, and had a couple of falls causing us, her caretakers, some alarm. Getting her into sturdy shoes became a major focus of our attention. It didn’t go well. She hated the utilitarian styles available to her. A woman who her whole life loved shoes, felt herself slipping downward by having to wear a pair she detested. “Those are old lady shoes,” she’d say in response to every pair I brought her, and then with perfectly polished fingernails, she’d wave them away. My mother made clear that she was not giving up more of herself than she absolutely had to surrender.

If she were still with us today, my mom would be having fun buying shoes again, and I’d be happy watching that happen.

Not long ago I took a trip with some long-time girlfriends. Among many other fun excursions, we went to an outlet mall to shoe shop. My friend Marie bought maybe 15 pairs in 20 minutes. I was jealous. At age 66, she could still wear nearly any shoe including flat flip flops, and pumps with skinny, skinny heels. At 65, I was desperately seeking comfort, and it was not to be had on the clearance shoe racks. Next winter we’ll travel and shop together again. This time, I expect to carry home nearly as many shoe bags as does Marie. And for that I’ll be eternally grateful.

 

Marilyn Cappellino is a syndicated columnist living in Buffalo, NY, a rebounding city where, she happily notes, her five grandchildren also reside.

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