As a nation, we’re living longer—and increasingly experiencing “retirement” differently than previous generations. Halbert Hargrove has been engaged for several years in building a community focused on helping people prepare for both extended longevity and changing life patterns.
We founded our nonprofit, The New Retirement Forum, to help further initiatives to promote and share innovative ideas on how people can best manage retirement challenges. Our goal is move innovations out of academia and into the lives of those who can benefit from them. We’ve been working with the Stanford Center on Longevity to co-sponsor events and design challenges.
The following article describes the first of what we hope will be many successful competitions aimed at brainstorming practical solutions to aging-related challenges. This first Design Challenge was co-sponsored by the Center on Longevity and its collaborator, Aging2.0.
By Rita Beamish
Professors from the Stanford Center on Longevity were spotting a promising trend. Their students were animated and engaged by the issues around long life and the dramatic societal change that’s evolving with global aging.
Struck by this enthusiasm, the Center’s leaders pondered the opportunities. How might youthful creativity and out-of-the-box thinking be applied to challenges facing older people? What innovations might come from intergenerational collaboration?
Enter the Center’s Design Challenge—a competition aimed at the young minds that will gain the most down the road from their own creativity. The competition, sponsored by the Center on Longevity and its collaborator Aging2.0, asked students around the world to come up with products or services that could boost the everyday independence of dementia sufferers.
A New Kind of Challenge
The Challenge grew out of an offer by Russ Hill, the chairman and CEO of the investment firm Halbert Hargrove, after he spoke with Laura Carstensen, director of the Center on Longevity. Hill was interested in issues around the changing demographic landscape that by 2030 will see more than a third of the U.S. population be over the age of 50. He had created a non-profit foundation, New Retirement Forum, to pursue and spread emerging science results and cutting edge information about aging. Hill offered the Center seed funding of $50,000 to imagine and implement a project that the center felt could make real impact.
“We had long discussed a project to get university students more involved in creating real solutions to aging-related issues, so we immediately saw this as an exciting opportunity for the Center on Longevity,” Carstensen said.
The idea for the competition was to support not just a concept or design related to people living with dementia, but something that would move beyond the drawing board to become an actual product, said Ken Smith, Mobility director for the Center. The need for such products is not in question as 78 million baby boomers create the largest-ever group of seniors, and surveys reveal that more than 80 percent of older people want to age in their own homes.
As well, Smith said, “We felt we needed to reflect what was special about Stanford,” including its talented students, Silicon Valley savvy, renowned business and engineering schools, and connections to the tech community and start-up world.
Hill traced his own involvement not only to his company’s work with pre-retirees, but also to the realization in his 60s that “retirement” held no interest for him. He wanted to remain vital and involved.
“Aging is something that people are fascinated by,” especially as new research often debunks many earlier theories of inevitable decline, said Hill. “It’s nice when you can see good work that, instead of helping just a few people, helps a lot of people—and quickly. That’s what the Center can do.”
Aging2.0, a global organization that helps aging-focused entrepreneurs connect with capital and mentorship, helped the Center narrow the competition focus by reaching out to industry. They found deep concern about the growing mismatch between escalating numbers of dementia cases—36 million globally and growing—and the pool of available caregivers. Mindful of the crucial need to maximize independent living skills for people with cognitive impairment, the Center called for student-developed products, services or programs to support quality of life and personal independence.
The result was 52 design entries from 31 universities in 15 countries. Expanding the Center’s global reach, the competition also revealed the growing convergence of the tech and aging services communities—a “point of opportunity,” Smith called it.
An Opportunity Too Good To Be True
Is this for real? That was Sha Yao’s first reaction when she learned of the competition while trolling the Web one day. She wondered if this might actually be the chance to connect her years-long passion, which had spurred her master’s project, to people who might appreciate what she had created.
Yao had been doggedly, and without luck, seeking connections to market the innovative project she had developed at San Francisco’s Academy of Art Institute. Her invention was a seven-piece set of color-coded, ergonomic utensils, cups and bowls that make it easier for people with Alzheimer’s disease to eat.
“There are many design awards, but usually more for sexy technology, not for the elderly,” said Yao. She had learned that Alzheimer’s victims don’t eat sufficient calories, simply because they are stymied by the mechanics of scooping and retaining food on utensils. “I thought, finally there are some people who have the same concern as me. Finally there are people who think this is important and we can actually do something.”
“That’s a very big gift to me. I have to attend this competition,” she thought.
She did attend. And she won the $10,000 first prize for an idea that had been inspired by her beloved grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s. Now she is working with a company she met through the contest to bring her tableware to market.
A Shifting Focus
The Challenge reflects the nascent shift from decades of entrepreneurial focus on youth to increasing efforts to enhance older lives. Capital investment in the longevity arena, still in early stages, has seen a strong uptick in just a few years, said Stephen Johnston, founder of Aging2.0.
Company and industry sponsors readily signed on to help the competition with financial, judging and mentoring support.
By the time the seven finalists presented, or “pitched,” before the 12 judges, they had been paired with mentors from the aging services industry to help refine their products.
The entries reflected the wide range of opportunity around aging—from a stove burner with a visual indicator showing when it’s too hot to touch, to a game application that teaches the elderly how to use touch screen devices, to a spoon that electronically mimics taste—salt for instance, without requiring salting the food. One finalist presented a cloud-based mobile device to monitor wellness and deliver alerts to help personal caregivers coordinate with a larger caregiving team. Another entry monitors an adult’s typical home behavior and sends an alert to a caregiver when something abnormal happens, like a fall.
“I was blown away by the quality of the ideas and how novel they were,” said Aging2.0’s Johnston. “It was really satisfying to see that they weren’t all tech-based and not all focused on a specific problem.
“It showed the power of design to really make a difference in people’s lives. The aging space has not traditionally been very design savvy.” Good design is key to moving away from the negative aging stereotypes centered on dependency and debilitating medical needs, and instead promoting the opportunities of longevity, he added.
“If you can make a great product that allows someone with cognitive impairment to remain independent, it’s possible to improve the lives of everyone.”
The judges were especially impressed with Sha Yao’s extensive research in creating her set of two utensils, two bowl-plates and two cups. The bright blue bowl interiors were based on evidence that Alzheimer’s sufferers often can’t differentiate food from the plate – Yao chose the color specifically because there is virtually no blue-colored food. Slanted bottoms and spoon design make the food easier to scoop and allow the diner to get that last bit of soup without tilting the bowl.
Yao had witnessed dementia sufferers struggling to get food from plate to mouth, from her own late grandmother to residents of daycare facilities where she volunteered. She wanted to help them and at the same time honor her once-vibrant grandmother.
Yao brimmed with gratitude at the opportunity to present her invention before the judges and about 200 observers.
Juliet Holt Klinger, the Vice President of Dementia Care at Brookdale Senior Living, was one of the judges. Clearly moved, she stood and told Yao, “I have 6,500 residents who eat three times a day. That’s over 19 thousand times per day that your design could help people.”
“I cried,” Yao recalled. “These are the people I was trying to connect with. They got it.”
Also impressed were representatives of Direct Supply, a leading manufacturer and distributor of products for the long term care industry. The company now is working with Yao to help her get the product manufactured and distributed.
“What she has hit upon is something seemingly simple but so elegantly designed that it will have a very positive impact on the quality of life for millions of seniors suffering from dementia,” said Tom Paprocki, Direct Supply’s manager of corporate innovation.
A second Design Challenge is in the works, this time focusing on mobility for older people, and is on track to draw wide interest.
Paprocki said he now receives up to 40 calls a week from entrepreneurs exploring the opportunities and partnership prospects for products centered around aging. The Center on Longevity also regularly fields inquiries from entrepreneurs seeking to better understand aging issues. “Only now are the entrepreneurs and investors awakening to the economic potential of this aging group,” said Paprocki. “What Stanford has done is focus on need areas that are critical to seniors.”