Design for Dementia

Written for Kinneir Dufort: http://www.kinneirdufort.com/blog/inspiring-stories

Julian and I have spent much of the last month meeting with and listening to the stories of some tough and inspiring people, helped by the research team from KD. We knew there was no way we could design for people with this condition without immersing ourselves in their lives first, and with the amount we’ve learned already it’s clear that this approach is paying off. Great design work is first and foremost informed by an understanding of people and their needs, and so meeting the very people you’re designing for, and getting familiar with their world, makes an enormous difference.

Today Julian and I were guests at a ‘Memory Cafe’ meeting in Chippenham. This is a weekly support group run by the Alzheimer’s Society that brings local people and their carers and families together, partly to socialise and chat, partly to get people involved in stimulating activities like painting and singing. It makes for a very friendly and encouraging environment and everyone we met today, both staff and visitors, was welcoming and keen to share their stories with us. We’ll be returning to the Memory Café again over the course of the project to learn more, share our ideas and ask their help in making them better.

Some of our visits have however, been more difficult. We made a home visit to an elderly gentleman and his carer last month which left us quite shocked and saddened, as we saw first-hand the terrible frustration and loss, both of personal identity and control over your life, which many people have to come to terms with. Slowly, over the years, dementia had unraveled this man’s whole life, and in meeting him we began to appreciate the anger and frustration he must feel. It was a tough day, but we returned to Bristol better understanding the reality of the problem and motivated to help in our own way. It reminded me why we’re doing this in the first place.

These people have inspired us and taught us a lot, and we’re beginning to form a picture of the issues people with dementia face on an everyday basis. Where do we think design can help? Well, one of the biggest frustrations we’re seeing is the gradual need to rely on others to do everyday tasks you used to do yourself. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must be for a bright and capable person to slowly lose control over the little things they used to do without thinking, like buying groceries, paying the bills, or simply planning their day. We can’t stop the decline, but we believe that the right interventions could make these tasks easier and therefore help people retain independence, and the self-esteem that comes with it, for longer.

With our understanding growing, we’ve begun to explore some product concepts, which we will share in an upcoming post. We have a range of ideas that are starting points for the design process, but of course, we need to select and develop the right ones. By listening to the expert feedback of people such as those we met at the Memory Café today, I’m confident we’ll be designing something that really matters.