Stanford Center on Longevity competition challenges students to design products for seniors

The winning entry of the Stanford Center on Longevity's design contest featured tableware for people with Alzheimer's. The idea is to introduce young designers to how the population is aging while tapping their creativity and enterprising ideas.

Courtesy Sha Yao set of Eatwell dishes

This prize-winning set of tableware was designed to help people with Alzheimer's feed themselves.

The Stanford Center on Longevity is encouraging innovative designs that improve the lives of older people – including one that could help people with Alzheimer's eat with greater dignity and efficiency.

On April 10, a panel of academics, industry professionals, nonprofit groups and investors picked the winners of the Design Challenge, which was launched in September 2013 and is the first of its kind at Stanford. The theme was "maximizing independence for those with cognitive impairment."

Ken Smith, the Center on Longevity's Director of Mobility and one of the organizers of the challenge, said the center received submissions from 52 teams from 31 universities in 15 countries that represented a wide range of both applications and disciplines. There were seven finalists, including one student team from Stanford.

Sha Yao from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco won the $10,000 first place prize for her project, "Eatwell," which involved the design of tableware specifically for people with Alzheimer's.

For example, blue was chosen as the color of the insides of bowls because dementia sufferers can become confused when food and bowl have similar colors, according to Smith. As spills are common when bowls are tipped to get the final bits out, Yao designed a slanted bottom that eliminates the need to tip. The cups have low centers of gravity and are difficult to knock over.

"The beauty is in the way that small design decisions were made with intentionality and with lots of testing with actual users. It is a wonderful example of user-centered design," said Smith.

Yao said her late grandmother had Alzheimer's, and that served as her personal motivation for the project. Yao had to overcome numerous obstacles and frustrations, she said, but eventually produced what Smith described as an "extremely well thought out" and original design.

"Eating is what people have to do every day to stay alive and healthy," Yao said. "My project proposal was to develop an eating set for people with Alzheimer's to eat by themselves as much as possible to maintain their dignity, and also to alleviate the caring burden of caregivers."

Yao, who hopes to begin manufacturing her product before the end of this year, thanked her family, friends, faith, instructors and Stanford for the opportunity. She said, "I am very thrilled to win the first Stanford Design Challenge."

The second place prize of $5,000 went to "Taste+," a National University of Singapore
student project involving a spoon that electrically stimulates the taste buds to promote better eating for those with diminished taste sensations.

The $2,000 third place award was given for "Memory Maps," a system that allows a person with early-stage cognitive issues to record memories attached to real-world locations. The device was developed by students at the Copenhagen Institute of Design.

The design created by Stanford students featured a system for automatically monitoring activities of daily living and generating a call for help when necessary.

Judges included 12 experts from academia, industry and nonprofits. One of them, Juliet Holt-Klinger, the vice president of dementia care at Brookdale Senior Living, spoke passionately about Yao's design.

"I love this stuff," said Holt-Klinger. "I've been looking forever for this. We're going to work with it."

'Fresh thinking'

Smith said the goal of the contest is to elicit "fresh thinking on the biggest issues" related to aging and what can emerge in the marketplace.

"We tried really hard to make this challenge reflect what is special about Stanford – taking ideas from the lab and positively impacting the world."

For the most recent Design Challenge, the center paired finalists with aging-service providers for several months before the final projects were judged at the conference. Members of the investment community attended the conference as well.

"We see the challenge," Smith said, "as a way to introduce a whole generation of young designers to how the population is aging and where this opens up opportunities for their work. This generation will be greatly affected by the population age shift, and it is important that they understand it."

Youth is a vital part of helping people age gracefully, Smith said. That was reflected in the student motivation in the design contest – the young designers had a sincere interest in boosting the quality of life for their elders.

"The response we got definitely emphasizes that the younger generation cares about finding solutions for pressing issues related to aging," he said.

Caregivers and families

Smith said one issue is how caregivers and families care for people with cognitive impairments related to aging. "It is one of the most challenging things that can happen to an individual or a family. It is also one of the most difficult conditions to provide with care."

He noted that when you take away the assumption that an older person will respond in a reasonable and predictable way, providing care becomes a challenge. It has also been documented as one of the most stressful conditions for caregivers – either from the family or professionals, he said.

The center's new Design Challenge, which formally kicked off at last week's conference, seeks ways to help keep people mobile and active across their entire lives. The theme is "enabling personal mobility across the life span."

Smith said the new initiative focuses on potential products and services that reduce sedentary lifestyles by encouraging physical movement and reducing barriers to mobility in the home and in the community.

"Personal mobility represents independence and self-determination with age, so keeping people as fit as possible and providing accommodation when deficits occur is really important," he said.

The challenge will be organized in phases, and once deadlines for the next challenge are finalized they will be posted on the center's website, Smith said. The winner will be announced in April 2015.

Smith noted that the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition has expressed a desire to join the effort. "They provide great expertise and a national platform for the work we will be doing in this area," he said.