The Art of Design for Alzheimer’s

By Alex Schweder, Associate Professor at Pratt Institute

Having a parent is a universal human experience. Without parents, it is safe to say, none of us would exist. Our relationship with those who are responsible for our existence is unique, sometimes fraught, sometimes joyous, but always profound. With them, our first relationship, we practice being human. If we are fortunate, they are our guides into personhood and help shape us into loving beings.

Many reading this newsletter have experienced a drastic change in this relationship when a parent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. For the same reason, other readers have experienced a change in relation with a spouse that transforms it into one that is parent-like. The question “What can I do to help?” can leave even those whose parents helped them become doctors experience feelings of helplessness. My mother raised me to become an artist, an architect, and a teacher; not a skillset with obvious benefit for those living with a diagnosis. However, she also raised me to think outside the box and it was this attitude that led me to pick up the phone and reach out to Matt Kudish at CaringKind when I was in the beginning stages of forming an answer to this question through a college level course I was teaching.

I teach in the Industrial Design department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. This school advances innovation though the permission they give their faculty to tailor courses to their passions and strengths while encouraging collaboration with premiere institutions such as The Cooper Hewitt as we did after the first semester. During the time that I cared for my own mother, I couldn’t find products for daily life that were directed toward her changing mind. In my first conversation with Matt we talked about this gap in the daily lives of those diagnosed and those caring for them and agreed that by working together we could merge advanced design thinking of Pratt and The Cooper Hewitt with CaringKind’s first hand research through experience to fill it. Two years later, we have developed more than 25 products that won an Editor’s Design Award when they were exhibited at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in May of 2017.

Each semester students would begin researching Alzheimer’s disease through secondary and tertiary sources such as journals and internet research. With this they began a month-long process of developing twenty ideas for products. In the second week, we went to CaringKind where students began experiencing the way that primary research can break design assumptions and expand thinking by speaking directly with the people for whom they are designing. Every semester this experience resulted in a remarkable jump in imagination and quality of products.

Returning three weeks later, sketches showing hundreds of ideas for products were vetted by Matt Kudish and his staff. One or two per student were then chosen to move forward into prototyping. Students then returned to Pratt to focus on how to make these products real by selecting materials and manufacturing processes. After a month and several iterations of the idea we returned to CaringKind again to present our work to family and professional caregivers. Their feedback was eye-opening for students, giving input based on years of real life experience. With this wealth of new information students worked for the next month to refine products to a working prototype to present to a panel consisting of members from CaringKind and The Cooper Hewitt for a final discussion of the work.

By the end of the course students developed products for people whose familiar environments had become strange. Each work is meant to retail for less than $100 using primarily analog technologies. In doing so, these remarkable young people have managed to multiply moments of joy, preserve dignity, and ease caregiving for those managing the disease.

Alex Schweder has been a Visiting Associate Professor at Pratt Institute since 2012 where he has taught in several departments including Industrial Design. Here, under the guidance of Chair Constantin Boym, Schweder collaborated with CaringKind and The Cooper Hewitt Museum to teach a course called “Design for the Mind”. In this studio, students developed working prototypes of products they invented for people with Alzheimer’s Disease and their caregivers. Schweder is an alumnus pf Pratt and went on to pursue his Masters and Doctoral work at Princeton and the University of Cambridge respectively.

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