Packaging Digest is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Healthcare Packaging
Early Advocate for Senior Friendly Packaging Dies
Photo credit: eggeeggjiew –

Early Advocate for Senior Friendly Packaging Dies

John Bitner enjoyed life, from his birth on June 4, 1944, until his death on May 14, 2020. For more than 50 of those years, John served the packaging industry with an illustrative career that blended packaging design and engineering across multiple markets and disciplines. Join us on Friday, May 29, to celebrate his life and accomplishments.

Imagine you can’t see well, that everything is blurry, and you can’t read the instructions on a package. And you can’t hear what the person helping you is telling you to do. Your hands fumble and your fingers don’t have the dexterity to do a simple task like opening a bottle.

Welcome to old age.

John Bitner realized that packaging engineers could make the world a better place by designing packages that were easy for senior citizens to read, handle, open, and reclose, while still being safe for the rest of the population, especially young children. In his career, John advocated for child-resistant packaging designs that were also senior friendly, especially for pharmaceuticals.

I participated in one of John’s experiments that, through direct experience, taught packaging developers that pharmaceutical packaging desperately needed to be better designed by considering the plight of the user.

At a Chicago Chapter meeting of the Institute of Packaging Professionals sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, John had people in the audience pair up, with one person acting as a “senior” and the other as their caregiver. The senior was given glasses smeared with petroleum jelly, ear plugs, and rubber gloves. This instantly turned them into a typical elderly person with bad eyesight, who was hard of hearing, and had arthritic hands that didn’t work well.

These seniors then tried to open different pharmaceutical packages, like a pill bottle or a blister pack. The caregiver was there to help, but without actually opening the packages for the patient. Of course, there was a lot of laughter. Us seniors (I got to play) looked ridiculous, decked out as we were.

But then something remarkable happened. The play turned serious and, as the task to open the packages failed over and over, the frustration of both parties rose to yelling-and-throwing-things levels. Really.

What a great way to make an important point and to spur packaging designers on. Since then, we have seen some improved package and closure designs that are easier to open without compromising safety — efforts that continue with today's emphasis on user-centric design.

Thank you, John, for helping to make all this possible.

John Bitner, 1944-2020

What else John taught us.

He stayed busy and involved with packaging. In more recent conversations with John, he and I talked about better packaging for contraceptions and cannabis.

Here are a few of John’s insights, advice, and wisdom over the years:

“The packaging requirement for medical marijuana exceeds that for other controlled substances requiring special packaging. The package must be intuitive and easy to use. It is not enough to pass CPSC [Consumer Products Safety Commission] protocol. It must be a package that patients want to use in their home. There can be no exemptions such as we now grant to the elderly or debilitated. Because THC acts directly upon those brain cells called cannabinoids that influence memory, thinking, concentration, time perception, and coordinated movement, which are all required to properly open and re-secure a medical vial package for safety and adherence, packaging design must address impaired coordination and difficulty with thinking, concentration, and problem solving.”

From December 2013, “Letter to the Editor: A Packaging Prescription for Medical Marijuana”

“Motivating a patient through fear does not enamor her to use a compliant package. [Instead,] a package can function as a patient partner by providing motivational passion of joy rather than fear.”

From March 2012, “Changing patient behavior with packaging”

“When packaging technology interacts directly with research, marketing, and sales, all parties benefit. Ultimately the company as a whole thrives, and the patient survives. Packaging must take its position in marketing, sales, research, discovery ... the early stages of product/market conceptualization/development. Millions of dollars are lost and opportunities for patients sacrificed because of late-arriving catastrophes.”

From August 2014, “Employees report: Doing more with less is mandatory”

“…there is an inordinate amount of information in the literature that is neither pertinent [nor] relevant to the patient. The drug manufacturer is mandated to provide a road map–sized amount of literature folded multiple times and wadded up into a one-inch square. What begins as a massive insert becomes nothing more than a single sheet of paper when delivered to the patient at the pharmacy.”

From September 2011, “Quality in packaging”

“The number one reason for nursing home admittance is the inability to manage one’s medication regimen. That said, everyone should want to support every aspect of compliant packaging. Designers and engineers who are not aware of a child’s thought process or are not intimate with the daily struggles of the elderly are an impediment to their own initiative. Technical intellect exists within the realm of the multitude of packaging industries. It is their willingness to unleash it that drives success.”

From May 2010, “Pharmaceutical packagers: Compete through innovation”

“Seniors sometimes really do forget, but alarms and buzzers won’t make patients take medications if they don’t want to. What does make them compliant is knowledge. Meaningfully educating the patient more than anything will work — not fear-based motivation. If technological innovation can increase communication between a doctor or a pharmacist and a patient, improved adherence will follow.”

From July 2014, “Preparing for patients of the future”

A full life and career.

In his online obituary, we learn more about the husband, father, uncle, grandfather (pop pop), as well as about his professional accomplishments. Here is an excerpt:

His accomplished 50+ year career blended art, and design and engineering in packaging, and spanned multiple market signets and disciplines.

Recognized internationally for his work with the Consumer Products Safety Commission for over twenty-five years to protect the lives of our children while improving the quality of life for seniors, John was in the forefront of investigative research related to improved seal integrity and higher barrier performance through adhesion technology, advanced tooling design, equipment innovation, and award-winning structural design.

The Wall Street Journal has hailed John Bitner’s efforts as “evangelical” for senior-friendly packaging and the Public Broadcast System produced a documentary on the challenges of universal design, featuring John’s achievements. He never tired of testing and pushing packaging and technology to make life safe and secure for the young and the elderly. Nor did he tire of a good 18 holes of golf, a drink with a friend, singing with his wife, or thinking of how to make life better. Artist, designer, packaging industry icon, friend.

Share your stories and memories.

To celebrate the life and career of John Bitner, one of his colleagues — Peter Schmitt, managing director at healthcare packaging consultancy Montesino — has arranged a virtual wake. The packaging community is invited to briefly share their stories of how they met and worked with John in a Zoom call on Friday, May 29, at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

To attend, click this link on the date and time:

Meeting ID: 854 4107 4735

Password: 994021

One tap mobile

+19292056099,,85441074735#,,1#,994021# US (New York)

+16699006833,,85441074735#,,1#,994021# US (San Jose)

Or dial by your location

+1 929 205 6099 US (New York)

+1 669 900 6833 US (San Jose)

Meeting ID: 854 4107 4735

Password: 994021

Find your local number:

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.