According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, as of 2010 there were an estimated 35.6 million people with dementia worldwide. This number will nearly double every 20 years to an estimated 65.7 million in 2030 and 115.4 million in 2050. This places a huge financial burden on health services as currently there is no cure for dementia and symptoms get progressively worse over time.

British prime minister David Cameron threw down the gauntlet earlier this year when he launched his challenge on dementia, an ambitious program that aims to deliver major improvements in dementia care, dementia awareness and dementia research by 2015. He said that dementia is one of the biggest problems we face today and quality of life needs to be improved for those living with dementia as well as their families. 

As a response, the Design Council, in partnership with the Department of Health, ran a national competition to find teams of designers and experts who could develop new ideas to help improve the lives of those affected by dementia. The aim of this ‘Living Well with Dementia’ program was to demonstrate the vast potential of innovative ideas in an under-served market.

At the end of April, the five concepts – which the program would fund and support the development of – were revealed at an event held at the Design Council in London. “Fear of dementia can leave people feeling powerless and trapped, leaving them isolated and unsupported. That is why we have worked with the Design Council to drive innovation in dementia care,” said Care Services Minister, Paul Burstow, at the launch. “The five winning ideas have the potential to make a big difference for people with dementia and their families.”

Three of the concepts revolve around a service offering. These include: Dementia Dog, a research project aimed at finding out whether specially-selected assistance dogs can help and protect the wellbeing of people with dementia; Grouple, a private online network helping people share the responsibilities of caring for someone with dementia; and Trading Times, a website to help carers find flexible employment.

The first of the two product offerings is the buddi wrist-band – a discreet wristband personal alarm that sends alerts from anywhere to buddi’s support services, helping those with dementia remain active and independent.

buddi is an existing company that already has a personal alarm product on the market so the technology and support service is already in place. However, the aim with the buddi wristband was to move away from the traditional personal alarm worn on a lanyard around the user’s neck to a product that would be less cumbersome and that the user would be happy to wear.

buddi chose a wristband as they thought it would be much more mainstream and acceptable. An inspiration was the silicone charity bands that people put on their wrists one day and then just leave them there. “Like a charity band, we wanted to come up with a wristband that was small and discreet and doesn’t brand the wearer as being vulnerable,” says Chris Starey, design engineer at buddi. “We wanted people to wear the product 24/7.”

The starting point for the design was the shape. As wearability of personal alarms is such an issue, it needed to look good and be comfortable. “We had this vision to make it long and thin – we didn’t want it to sit awkwardly on the wrist,” says Starey

However, all wrists are different and the designers also had to take into consideration how wi-fi performs with different shapes. “The shape we chose lends itself to optimal RF [radio frequency] performance,” he adds.

Another challenge was in making the clasp as easy to use as possible – the solution they came up with was to make it magnetic. “The whole strap is part of the clasp so there are no small or fiddly areas,” comments Starey.

“We tackled the wristband from every angle – shape, materials and clasp mechanism – as we didn’t want to give people a reason to take it off.”

buddi is now embarking on a program of engineering and testing to fine-tune the buddiband for launch in early 2013. With a range of features including GPS tracking, manual emergency alert, automatic fall alert, online monitoring and a powerful rechargeable battery, it means that those with dementia can get out and about with confidence and, hopefully, will be able to remain independent for longer.

The second product offering is Ode – an unobtrusive mains-powered device that releases authentic food aromas at particular times in the day to help stimulate appetite and maintain an interest in eating.

One of the key challenges with dementia is that people lose their appetite and often forget to eat. As a result, malnutrition is a major cost to the health service. “Some people do not have a sensory engagement with food. This may be because the food is delivered and not cooked by themselves, or it could be forgetfulness of when they last ate or they may have just lost enthusiasm for food. It is a subtle and complex set of causes,” explains Katie Ostrom, a fragrance specialist and founder of the Olfactory Experience.

Ode is a start-up venture incubated by the Olfactory Experience and Rodd Design, a user-centred design and innovation consultancy, who were responsible for the device’s industrial design. The aim of this device was for it to be less stigmatising and more inspiring than an alarm or constant reminders from carers to eat. “The design had to be humble and unobtrusive so that it could be placed anywhere in the user’s living space,” says Ostrom.

Three sliders are slotted into the device, each containing a different fragrance. These are released three times a day in short sharp bursts, adjustable to coincide with the user’s mealtimes and daily routines. The fragrances have been developed specifically for Ode in a laboratory following workshops carried out with those who have dementia. The current fragrances, which the user can choose three of, include Bakewell Tart, sweet vanilla biscuits, coronation curry, orange juice and ginger beer.

The product prototype has already been tested, with very good results. “There was a lady in a care home who had been losing weight. After a few days of having the Ode in her room she was eating a bit more of her food, then she was asking when it was coming and then she was asking for second helpings,” describes Ostrom.

Following the launch of the concept at the Design Council in April, Ostrom has received many calls and emails from people who want to order one. However, they still need to manufacture a small batch prototype for final product evaluation before setting up a supply chain and distribution partnerships. The plan is to hopefully launch the Ode by the end of the year.

“We are working as fast as we can to get the Ode to those people who are interested, including daughters and sons who are worried about their parent’s eating, as well as care homes and the NHS (National Health Service),” says Ostrom.

The ‘Living Well with Dementia’ program demonstrates what a vital role design can play in confronting a major social challenge such as dementia.

“We’re tackling dementia on a variety of levels,” said Professor Alistair Burns, the National Clinical Director for Dementia, at the launch of the concepts in April. “And whilst research into effective treatments is progressing, it’s vital that we develop new ways to improve key aspects of life for those with the condition, and their carers. I have no doubt that these prototypes could have a major positive impact on quality of life, continuity of care and the wellbeing of those with dementia.” 

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