Clockwise from the top left: a special smartphone, a compass that always points home, a special pillow for demented seniors and the clever calender.

Designing for dementia

A compass that always points home, a clever calendar which audibly tells you that it is time for your medication, or a Smartphone that puts you into contact with several informal caregivers with one push of a button. PhD candidate Rens Brankaert hopes that patients with early dementia can stay at home longer thanks to such innovations: often that is not only pleasant for the patients themselves, but for public finances as well.

People suffering from early dementia do not only have trouble remembering things, but also lose their spatial orientation and their grip on time. By means of clever technology you can try to alleviate the everyday problems caused as a result. Still, it is difficult to predict which tools are effective within that context, says Rens Brankaert, a PhD candidate at Industrial Design. “Direct questions to patients about what they need are no use due to their disease. Moreover, it is awkward as a designer to envisage the way of thinking of someone suffering from dementia. That is why you need to test ideas experimentally in a Living Lab at an early stage.”

In Brankaert’s case that ‘Living Lab’ was especially the home situation of dementia patients. He introduced a number of prototypes – including a clever calendar, a special Smartphone and a compass that always points home – to various patients and their partners, in order to learn through these examples how one may best ‘design for dementia’. In the meantime he hoped, of course, that one or more of these ideas would actually prove to be useful, even more so when shortly after he had started his PhD research his grandfather was diagnosed as suffering from dementia. “That did form an extra motivation for me.”

The clever calendar began as Brankaert’s graduation project; it is a weekly overview somewhere between an ordinary calendar and a clock. The calendar contains a mechanical reader which moves across the weekly schedule real time, and gives a signal when it is time for one of the activities – indicated by a colored picture fitted with an RFID tag. By means of light and auditory signals patients are called to go to the calendar, where they are then told by a voiceover that it is time to take their medication, that it is time to eat, or that the weekly card-playing night is coming up again.

This is work with a vulnerable target group

“We tested the calendar in four patients’ homes”, says Brankaert. “As with all prototypes they were for patients who were cared for by their partners at home, who had accepted their condition with the onset of dementia, and who were able and willing to talk about it. The partners could phone me if the patients got confused by the calendar. That is essential when you’re working with such a vulnerable target group.”

Although the navigation function on the GoLivePhone, an adjusted senior citizens’ telephone also tested by Brankaert, seemed like a good idea, its operation turned out to be too complicated for many patients. And so, together with PDEng student Rian de Jong, he constructed a special ‘get-home-safely’ compass. A simple disk showing an arrow that always points in the direction of home. “I just bought a GPS chip, which I combined with a motion and gravity sensor and a device that measures and corrects the position of the arrow on the compass. It is reminiscent of the compass used by Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, though this one has the programed GPS coordinates of the home address. And it turned out to work better than we had expected. Seven out of the eight early-dementia trial subjects were able to follow a preprogramed route with it.”

His grandfather who is going senile is still at home, says Brankaert, and is being cared for by his grandmother. He also showed his grandfather all the prototypes. Unfortunately his dementia has now progressed so far that the compass is no use to him anymore. “Still, I’m convinced that if the product had been available earlier, it could have benefited him considerably.”

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