Smart products for seniors

This tableware, designed for people with Alzheimer's disease, recently took the top prize in a contest sponsored by the Stanford Center on Longevity aimed at helping people with cognitive impairments remain independent.

Sha Yao/Sha Design

As they age, many seniors struggle with basic daily activities, such as eating and connecting with family and friends. That represents a business opportunity for innovative designers.

The Stanford Center on Longevity (SCL), where I'm a research scholar, recently held a design challenge to encourage the development of innovative products that would improve the quality of life for older people. Ken Smith, an SCL director, launched the challenge last year with the theme "maximizing independence for those with cognitive impairment." Smith says the Center received submissions from 52 teams at 31 universities in 15 countries.

The winners were chosen last week at the Stanford campus by a panel of academics, nonprofit groups and investors. Although the products are not yet commercially available, the numerous business executives in the audience suggest they may soon be. More important, they represent the kind of thoughtful design that other companies could seek to emulate.

The first prize of $10,000 was awarded to Sha Yao from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco for her project "Eatwell," which is tableware designed for people with Alzheimer's disease. Yao observed that seniors may be discouraged to eat if it becomes difficult for them to use common eating utensils.

Yao's project was inspired by her late grandmother, who had Alzheimer's. Yao designed bowls with an innovative slanted bottom that decreases the chances for spills and reduces the need to tip the bowl to get the final bites of food. The bowls are blue so seniors can easily distinguish the food from the container. Similarly, she designed drinking cups with rubber bottoms to minimize spills.

Yao's goal was to create products that allow the elderly to eat independently as long as possible, thus reducing demands on caregivers. When you think about it, these features could help anybody, particularly children. Universal application is a key feature of good design principles.

The second prize of $5,000 was awarded to a team from the National University of Singapore. Their project, titled "Taste +," was a spoon that electronically stimulates the taste buds for salt, sour and bitter tastes. Seniors often experience diminished taste sensation as they age, which reduces their desire to eat and, in the process, results in poor nutrition. The team also reported that subsequent iterations of their spoon might try to stimulate tastes for chocolate and vanilla.

The third prize of $2,000 went to a team from the Copenhagen Institute of Design for their "Memory Maps" product, a software system that allows people in the early stages of memory loss to record memories that are associated with specific locations (This project was also inspired by the designers' grandparents.)

A particularly poignant moment was a video showing a child telling his aging grandfather that "You may be forgetful, but you're definitely not forgotten!" Memory Maps connects the young and old in meaningful ways and helps stimulate seniors' memories, mitigating and delaying dementia in the process.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.