If you needed any proof that George Bernard Shaw was wrong when he said “youth is wasted on the young,” meet the student winners of the Stanford Center on Longevity’s Design Challenge.
Their mission was to devise products and services to “maximize independence for those with cognitive impairment.” (I wrote about the seven finalists when they were named in January; the three winners were announced on April 10.)
New Ideas for Older People
Stanford and its Challenge partner Aging 2.0 (an organization aiming to accelerate innovation to improve the lives of older adults) received submissions from 52 teams in 15 countries.
(MORE: Bringing Someone With Dementia Back to Life)
Coming up with ways to help the elderly suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive impairment might not seem a natural for students in their 20s and 30s.
“I’m relatively young compared to my target user,” said Sha Yao, the First Place winner who received a $10,000 prize for the Eat Well tableware she designed at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. “My other classmates were working on sexy consumer products and they’d say, ‘I don’t get it. Why are you working on this?’”
First Place: Eat Well
Yao didn’t let them deter her. Inspired by her grandmother with Alzheimer’s, she came up with a why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-this-before 7-piece set of dishes, bowls and cups whose color and shapes were specially-designed for those with cognitive impairment.
The inside of the bowls are blue because people with dementia can get confused when their food and bowl have similar colors. Yao saw a Boston University study that suggested if she changed the color of tableware to red or blue, someone with Alzheimer’s will eat 24 percent more food, on average, and drink 84 percent more liquid.
Her bowls have slanted bottoms to avoid spills that often arise with normal bowls when users tip them to get all their food. The cups are hard to knock over and also have rubber mats and extended handles that act as stabilizers.
(MORE: Suddenly the Tech World Loves People Over 50)
Yao, who now runs Sha Design in San Francisco, is working on manufacturing her Eat Well set and selling it to nursing homes and day care centers. That, she says, would be her gift to her late grandmother.
“I want to tell my grandmother that she helped many people,” said Yao.
Juliet Holt-Klinger, vice president of dementia care at Brookdale Senior Living — one of the Design Challenge judges — thinks that’ll happen. “I have 6,500 residents who eat three times a day. That’s over 19,000 times each day that your design could help people just in our facilities,” she told Yao at the finals.
Second Place: Taste+
A student team from the National University of Singapore led by Huabin Kok took home Second Place and a $5,000 prize for Taste+. It’s a spoon that electrically stimulates taste buds to make food yummier for people with diminished taste sensation, as is true for many with cognitive impairment.
With Taste+, the user taps a button on the spoon to get a salty or sour flavor, instead of adding salt (which could lead to heart problems).
“A digital taste is a fairly new concept, people are usually very curious about how it works and a little skeptical about placing electronics in their mouths,” said Huabin. “However, after they tried out the prototype, they were quite surprised by the outcome.”
One major drawback: at the moment Taste+ isn’t able to deliver a sweet sensation strongly, but the team is working on that.
Third Place: Memory Maps
The $2,000 Third Place award went to Ritika Mathur and other students at the Copenhagen Institute of Design for Memory Maps. It uses an RFID reader, a map of the neighborhood and GPS technology to let people with early-stage cognitive issues record memories about places they’ve been.
“Our goal was not to bring back what’s gone,” said Mathur, “but to find out what is still there and nourish and cherish that.”
The team plans to build a few Memory Map devices and embark on a pilot launch in homes and healthcare facilities in the United States, Denmark, India and Taiwan soon, ultimately getting to market next spring.
“Memory Maps touched everyone’s emotions,” said Ken Smith, Director of Mobility at the Stanford Center on Longevity and one of the organizers of the Design Challenge.
Next Year's Design Challenge
Smith said the judging of the finals was harder than he expected. “The scores were close across the board. I think that’s indicative of how strong the finalists were overall,” he added.
The 2014-2015 Stanford Design Challenge will switch from a focus on cognitive issues to physical ones. Its topic: “Enabling Personal Mobility Across the Life Span.”
Smith said that means judges will be looking for ideas for products and services that offer, for example, ways to motivate more physical activity among aging individuals, make that activity easier or help people experiencing physical limitations remain active.
I can’t wait to see what the students come up with.