Well-designed products can help people living with dementia

The Maze, Design icons

Imagine if, when you are preparing a meal, you can’t distinguish a plate from the bench that it’s sitting on. Or you go to take a sip of juice, only to realise too late that it’s scalding hot tea.

People living with dementia can’t always control their perception and spatial association. This leads to difficulties with everyday tasks, including eating, dressing and bathing.

As well as designing for safety, I have an interest in inclusive product design. Dementia-friendly design involves developing and embedding a set of robust, evidence-based and practice-informed dementia-friendly design standards, according to Professor Graeme Samuel, Chair of Dementia Australia at a National Press Club address in June this year. This will enable physical environments that support people living with dementia to be as independent as possible. The evidence shows that dementia-friendly environments lead to improved health and care outcomes.

Products, such as clocks, calendars, crockery, cutlery and drinkware can be designed for people with dementia to not only make life easier, but also avoid causing frustration which can have serious consequences. Product designers have a key role to play and there’s opportunities to have real impact in many many lives.

A growing issue in ageing populations

The risk at the age of 65+ is 1 in 15… and over 85 it’s 1 in 4.

Graeme Samuel, Chair, Dementia Australia

As our population ages, more of us will experience dementia. The statistic say that those of us who reach the age of 65, the risk of developing it in our remaining lifespan is 17% for men and 20% for women. More than 2,000 cases of dementia are being diagnosed each week. And it doesn’t only affect older people – currently over 30,000 Australians under the age of 65 have younger onset dementia.

Some product examples

I think it’s often carers who recognise the challenges and can help identify the need for more dementia-friendly products. I’m sure that carers were responsible for guiding the design of all these products that are clever in their simple utility.

We all need to eat

Crockery and cutlery that has contrasting colour handles or lines that define edges will help a person grip a cup better (avoiding hot drink spills) or better able to feed themselves. Inability to get food onto a fork, for example, just seems like a frustration that nobody should have to endure. In this outstanding example, young industrial designer, Sha Yao, was inspired to devise a set of purpose-designed eating tools after seeing her grandmother struggle to eat a simple meal. After careful research she launched the Eatwell Set.

The story of Sha Yao’s Eatwell products

And enjoy something to listen to

Someone has put a lot of thought into these audio players, which could only have been designed after observing people with dementia trying to operate standard devices. I love that The Simple Music Player has very straighforward, minimal controls with pre-loaded music and audio books. The volume controls are even hidden (for setting by carers) to avoid accidental activation, as this can cause confusion and frustration. Genius.

The Simple Music Player – so simple when you know what’s needed
What day is it …? Am I supposed to be somewhere …?

And those living with dementia need good clocks and calendars – designed to be easily understood and anticipate the challenges, especially for those living independently. Electronic clock/calendars have been purpose-designed to meet the needs of people with dementia. They include clear and separate displays of the day, date, month; then time, whether it’s day or night; and programmable reminders – such as appointments, medication, etc. eg. Seniors clock or Dementia clock.

Product design

As Graeme Samuel points out, these examples are not expensive – just considered and considerate of people living with dementia. Those things include care and empathy … but understanding is equally important, really to take the trouble, to try to learn what experience people with dementia have and then work around it.

That’s the key to dementia-friendly design – building with empathy and understanding. There’s a growing market for products that cater for people living with dementia.

Graeme Samuel

Dementia Australia’s Roadmap for Quality Dementia Care includes dementia-friendly design standards aimed at extending independent living.

As Graeme has said, there’s a growing market for such products. Industrial designers are encouraged to consider the needs of diverse groups in achieving the most useable products. To do so, he says understanding and empathy are vital. And as Sha Yao’s example demonstrates, love and care are all part of the mix.

Podcast interview with Graeme Samuel

I have recently interviewed Graeme Samuel for my podcast The Maze. Listen, and find a transcript.

In the podcast we discussed issues with eating when design has not been taken into account:

Gail:  Just thinking about every day eating where everybody has to eat, and you want that eating experience to be as comfortable as possible. And if it’s a poorly designed or poorly thought through set up, then people with dementia are going to get upset and frustrated – just through eating a meal. 

Graeme: And it’s the upset and frustration that causes the problem because it goes into a vicious circle. They’re upset and frustrated – not for their own failing, but because of the failing of the provider, whether it’s the person at home or whether it’s in an aged care home, the failing of the provider to understand what the issue is. And so therefore they get upset, they get frustrated. They get angry. And then you say, well we’d better calm him or her down, we’ll give them drugs. And then they go into a stupor.

With care and forethought, things can be so much better.