Even if it’s not on your mind right this minute, elder care is a topic that’s important to each and every one of us. Whether it’s making sure that our parents and relatives receive the care they need as they grow older or making plans for our own retirement and ongoing healthcare, the specifics of elder care are crucial.
Despite this, many aspects of elder care seem to be lagging behind. To correct this, forward-thinking professionals are dedicating themselves to studying how to make aging easier and provide the elderly with the help they need as their physical abilities start to decline.
That brings us to Shreya Thakkar, an expert design researcher who has focused on a number of key areas in her work, including the future of work and the future of healthcare and caregiving, the latter of which was the focus of our recent conversation with Thakkar.
In a simplified sense, design researchers study existing factors, methods, and products to fully understand the needs of users, then go about applying their design expertise to the question of how we can do better.
“As a design researcher, I work towards translating complex narratives and research insights into accessible design experiences, services, and products.”
Thakkar has collaborated with a number of prestigious design groups, including Planning Design Research Corporation, Neumayr Design, and Steelcase Inc., to name just a few, and her natural curiosity has led her to explore a wide variety of topics and problems.
But for today, we’ll be narrowing our focus to discuss the many challenges of elder care and potential solutions to these challenges, and it all starts with an understanding of where healthcare as a whole is headed in the future.
The healthcare of the future
To start, Thakkar commented on the ongoing trend of healthcare, in its entirety, moving toward seamless care that focuses on preventative measures and even predictive medicine that monitors changes in health as a way of stopping various conditions before they become serious.
These concepts are vital to any discussion of what elder care will look like in the future, and how it will be executed.
Specifically, Thakkar’s research into the intersection of future healthcare and care homes for the elderly brought up the question of what one of these care homes would look like in the year 2040.
She arrived at the conclusion that the care home of the future could act as not only a caregiver but also a provider and arbitrator.
“Health management is probably going to be one of the largest areas of growth in the care home of 2040 as science and technology continue to make strides toward extending life. The advantage of having our homes act as our own well-being guardians is the possibility of shifting healthcare from mere support to changing our lives.”
This expansive viewpoint not only incorporates ongoing shifts in healthcare but also evolving cultural understandings of what it means to be a “senior.”
“Our understanding of old age has been reframed. Aging-related products contribute to the false perception that older people are feeble and passive. The reality of old age and the prevalent myth that we have inherited about aging are undoubtedly very different.”
Though intangible, a reframing of our collective image of old age would certainly have a major impact on the decisions we make on behalf of the elderly and the decisions they make for themselves and their own care.
A large component of this reframing is the switch from defining the elderly as “passive” to seeing them as “active.”
But how did Thakkar identify this shift? The answer is via ethnographic research.
Inquiry in context
Without research, conclusions drawn about the conditions of aging and the wants and needs of the elderly would have relied on assumption, so to combat this, Thakkar set about conducting ethnographic research, which began with observation and interviews.
“Users participate in this research in their natural context, going about their daily business. The setting might be in their house, place of business, or some other location entirely. Then I observe the user while they carry out their task to comprehend how and why they act as they do.”
This observation was conducted at elder centers and assisted living facilities, specifically studying middle-aged seniors who had recently moved to one of these centers.
So what were the results of all this observation?
“For older adults, quality of life is crucially dependent on their ability to move around and complete everyday duties. Limitations in mobility are frequently one of the first indications of functional deterioration and a key aspect of frailty. People who have mobility issues are more prone to be sedentary, limit their social interactions, and suffer from chronic illnesses like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, poor cognitive function, and depression.”
What might seem like a simple mobility issue, which can have a number of different causes, can easily lead to other and more serious physical and mental issues.
The solution to mobility issues is to provide mobility assistance, such as through the use of aids like canes, walkers, wheelchairs, etc. Mobility difficulties also lead many seniors to seek assistance.
“With evidence showing that mobility aids improve users’ sense of security, self-assurance, and ability to function independently, the demand for assistive technology of all kinds has been on the rise for more than a decade. An activity constraint caused 29% of American seniors 65 and older to obtain personal assistance, according to a recent nationwide poll.”
So for the elderly, physical mobility is tied to many other aspects of health and well-being.
As for more specific takeaways, Thakkar found that individuals value their independence above everything else, that they prefer products to human assistance, and that they are hesitant to ask for help when first transitioning.
“They don’t want to disturb or upset their relatives or friends. They only start doing things that are absolutely necessary, since moving around their house or outside requires extensive forethought. They miss traveling and simply seeing places without making plans in advance.”
People also like to personalize a product they use, making it a reflection of their personality. They can feel that it’s an extension of themselves.
So for a designer like Thakkar, the next step is to start ideating and constructing designs that can potentially address numerous problems that have been identified during research.
In this case, the challenge was to design a product to assist mobility that seniors would want to use and personalize, thereby staying active and mobile, leading to a positive knock-on effect that would improve their overall health and mental state.
Let’s take a look at what Thakkar came up with.
Helping seniors ‘Wander On’
Thakkar found that the market for products designed for seniors had become stagnant. This, combined with her extensive research into elderly mobility and healthcare, led to the design of the first smart cane and walker, named Wander On.
“For aging baby boomers, Wander On makes wandering effortless. Its focus is on assisting the baby boomer generation and others who may lack the self-assurance necessary for independent mobility. It is intended to lead and keep one from becoming lost, to provide a sense of security, and enable one to get aid right away if they need it, combined with physical support.”
The Wander On cane is designed to function as a healthcare device, monitoring pulse, blood pressure, and body temperature. In addition, it has an SOS button, which, when pressed, contacts the help center, sending the user’s location and current health data so that qualified assistance can be dispatched to their location.
“The Wander On is also integrated with advanced home automation, so, for example, doors open when it’s nearby. Additionally, it would recognize hand gestures, such as when the user reaches out to open doors.”
The Wander On also includes a storage area and can also be used in conjunction with GPS to aid navigation.
This cane and walker is still in the prototype stage, but it definitely offers a compelling solution to many of the elder care challenges we’ve covered here.
Since it’s an object they can access at any time, seniors would likely be more motivated to use the Wander On, compared to asking a nurse, in-home caregiver, or relative for help, eliminating any hesitation based on a sense of self-consciousness.
The Wander On device is also superior to existing walkers and canes since it can provide monitoring and communication services that have previously had to be provided by medical professionals or caregivers.
So in a best-case scenario, having access to a Wander On cane or walker would enhance the user’s sense of independence, making them more likely to continue their normal routines, including healthy social activity.
It’s an impressive design, but Thakkar’s still not finished when it comes to designing better solutions for seniors.
“The ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have made it more difficult for professionals to visit elderly people in their homes and provide assistance. It’s my goal to help older people achieve greater levels of autonomy, independence, mobility, and connection through my work.”
This is only the beginning of what we hope will be a continuing effort to improve the well-being of seniors here in the US and around the globe.