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Understanding Alzheimer’s Through Design

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The 30th annual New Designers event at the Business Design Centre had a colourful array of design ideas and products on show. Three designers’ responses to dementia/ Alzheimer’s really caught my eye.

Before my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, about five years ago, I had next to no idea about the disease. Simply putting a label on his condition didn’t help me or my family understand it any better. We did the best we could with the tools and coping mechanisms that we had at the time and yes, it could have been a lot worse, but it could have been better too.

There seems to be a lot more information out there these days regarding dementia and I know a lot more people going through it, but perhaps that’s just a case of ‘you got a dog, now you notice everyone else has dogs’.

Either way, it was refreshing to see an illness that has always come across as clinical to me, explored in more humanist ways. Each designer used their creativity and personal experience to design ranges of tools and products to help both sufferers and carers in very different ways.

Side note – I’ve never liked the word sufferer. Granted they are suffering, but they are also living, hoping and dreaming like anyone else. They are fighting daily battles they may not even be aware of themselves, their body’s are at war with their minds and they are at war with that war. They are warriors.

new designers - unfold

The first designer’s work I saw was Catriona Binnie’s. Unfold is a wonderful tool that creates support networks for families and carers within local areas.

What I had already experienced first hand – joining forums within huge organisations such as The Alzheimer’s Society, was confirmed by Catriona through her diligent research. Though they offer a wealth of resources and communication tools, due to the sheer mass of people who use such forums, it’s very easy to get lost in a sea of depressed, desperate people, pleading for help.

This may all sound a bit melodramatic, but if you have witnessed someone you love go through any progressive, degenerative disease you will understand these feelings. With thread upon thread of advice seekers and only a handful (though admittedly this number is rising) of people equipped to help, sending your deep, personal heartfelt message out and hoping it won’t end up at the bottom of the pile can feel like a big hope.

Hope is exactly the message I got from Unfold. It is currently a platform for carers living in Dundee to upload feelings, anecdotes, questions, and in this sense feels very much like a journal, and a lot more personal than just another link in the chain.

To accompany the website is a journal, and beautifully crafted woollen pouches which further enhance the personal touch by adding a tactile component.

New Designers 2

I found Eleanor Richard’s work both artistic and thought provoking. At first I thought, ‘Here we go, another artsy take on the disease-du-jour, like how the Ice Bucket Challenge was great advertising for ALS’, but boy was I wrong! Through her own personal experiences of the disease Eleanor has created a tool which I believe really can make a difference to those close to the disease and looking for a more in depth understanding.

Alzheimer’s without Alzheimer’s is focused on promoting better understanding of the daily struggles Alzheimer’s warriors face. By taking a mundane, everyday task – washing up – and pretty much turning it on it’s head, the toolkit tries to recreate what seems like such a simple task to us from the point of view of someone with Alzheimer’s. The washing up bowl is made from a cardboard-like material which disintegrates over time, the bristles of the wash brush are the wrong way round and the tea towels are patterned with 2D/3D patterns in order to mimic the loss of depth perception and hallucinations common in the middle stages of the disease.

The concept in itself is brilliant; I didn’t even have to pick up the objects to understand how beneficial they would be in educating people, in a first hand way, about the disease.

Alongside the physical products are workshops where introductions and explanations about the objects and their relationship with Alzheimer’s are given, as well as an open discussion and Q&A with a guest speaker. Currently they are running in Dementia Cafes in Nottingham, Knighton and Breaston.

These in my mind are invaluable tools to promote better understanding and awareness of Alzheimer’s and hopefully can become more widely available.

New designers

Joshua Monahan’s design approach focused on the interaction between carers and warriors. His clever tools really aim to engage both parties and the best thing; he bridges the gap between mental age, capability, memories and personality in a truly honest way. No one’s trying to say a late stage Alzheimer’s warrior is going to become a graduate professor, or even recognise you, their child. But that doesn’t make them a lost cause, or lacking of your respect. Everyone deserves their dignity.

We got my grandad a Nintendo DS  with Dr.Kawashima’s Brain Training. What started out as a fun game everyday soon became a frustrating chore for my grandad. So we tried puzzles, I remember going on a specific puzzle buying mission – find the largest and fewest pieces with an undetailed background which also has an interesting, engaging and not overly childish theme – go!

Perhaps it was really us who didn’t want the theme of the puzzle to be childish because we didn’t want to see him as a child. Joshua’s product manages to align the reality of a warrior’s mental age and capabilities with their own perceptions, making it both safe and easy to use whilst not being demeaning.

There’s so much more I say about this product but with a possible re-brand and hopes for commercialisation I can’t give too much more away. As with all the designers, I will certainly be looking out for Joshua Monahan’s work  in the future.

My grandad was an amazing man; intelligent, thoughtful and caring. Many people will be affected by this seemingly hopeless disease. My hope is that these tools become mainstream and new designers keep pushing the perimeters of their degree courses, because what they are capable of is truly inspiring and could benefit us all.

Posted 14th Jul 2015
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