Residents serve as ultimate focus group for next-generation technology

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David Armour
David Armour

The senior care industry is hungry for new technology that improves the lives of seniors and helps them be as independent as possible. And although companies seemingly introduce new tools and technology every day, some of the most promising ideas are springing from the minds of enterprising young college students.

Our residents at La Costa Glen in Carlsbad, CA, recently discovered this firsthand after working with nearly 70 engineering students from the University of California, San Diego. As part of an initiative sponsored by the university's Center for Healthy Aging, the residents and students teamed up to develop products that enhance the quality of life for older adults. The students were charged with learning about the aging process and developing useful products that consider the needs of senior consumers.

UCSD is located in La Jolla, CA, in San Diego County, a short drive down the road from La Costa Glen. We were contacted by Maria Marquine, Ph.D., one of the professors involved with the design program, about a collaboration between the La Costa Glen residents and students from UCSD's Jacobs School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. We were thrilled to partner with such a highly respected university on a program that will benefit the aging services industry as a whole.

Teams of engineering students were paired with residents to begin the process of designing technology-based products. Over a period of six months, the students met with the residents in three sessions — each two to three hours long — to discuss their ideas for new products. The first session was structured as a “get-to-know” meeting during which the residents shared their struggles with daily living in order to guide the students in the creative process. In subsequent sessions, the students presented their prototypes for product ideas and the seniors provided feedback and constructive criticism. The real-world product testing and interaction with the seniors helped the students fine-tune their designs.

The final prototypes were presented in a Design Competition Showcase at UCSD with cash prizes awarded to the top three teams. La Costa Glen residents attended the showcase, tested the final products and voted for their favorite device. Products ranged from a shopping cart-style walker to a shoe insole that helps seniors walk safely. Also popular idea was a hearing aid that converts conversation into text that can be read on a smartphone. The winning product at the competition was KiWi Attention Companion, a device that warns seniors of possible tripping hazards along their path.

Several of the student teams have plans to continue developing their products, with the idea of eventually taking them to market. Some of the teams were only a few months away from launching their start-ups.

Participation in the UCSD program generated numerous positive outcomes for the residents. They genuinely enjoyed being part of an important research and design project and witnessing the evolution of the products they helped create. They also had the opportunity to share their experiences and concerns with highly intelligent, motivated young students and university professors, a group of people they may not otherwise have a chance to interact with in the community.

The program gave the residents an up-close view of technology, which helped to demystify its impact on their lives and make them feel more comfortable with it. Perhaps most importantly, being involved generated a strong sense of worth, knowing their input was critical to the success of the overall program.

From a management standpoint, the program required only nominal commitment. Staff involvement included publicizing the program at the beginning and providing regular updates to the residents over the months of product development. We also offered meeting space for the students to interact with the residents, minimal food service at the meetings and transportation to the Design Competition Showcase at UCSD.

Although management participation was minimal, the success of any program with outside partners depends on solid communication between all parties involved. A productive partnership must set clear expectations between the outside organization and the retirement community and requires genuine appreciation of the residents' time and energy.

In the case of UCSD, the professors, students and administrators exhibited the utmost professionalism, respect and gratitude toward the residents during every encounter. In fact, when the competition was over, many residents and students voiced sadness that their interaction would be coming to a close.

Working with UCSD on the design collaboration was an outstanding experience. We look forward to strengthening our involvement with the university's Center for Healthy Aging and engaging in new programs that bridge the multigenerational divide and generate greater understanding of the senior experience.

David Armour is executive director at La Costa Glen in Carlsbad, CA.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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