Marije Seinen headshot
Marije Seinen

As a user-centered designer, I’ve spent part of my career working to improve the lives of people living with dementia.

In healthcare, I’ve seen firsthand that the success of a product often hinges on the developers’ ability to get out from behind their desks. This special target group — people living with dementia — requires that I be onsite at memory care communities with our product prototypes, observing behaviors, and ascertaining feedback from both the residents and their caregivers.

It’s always a privilege to watch them engage with a game I’ve designed and see the joy it brings to all. To elicit this reaction, I know the end design must focus on basic, recognizable elements that evoke responses and new experiences of vibrancy.

Research shows that apathy is a significant challenge for people living with dementia. They lose the ability to take initiative, which has an enormous effect on their emotional and physical well-being. Design for this group had to be inviting, enticing users to move, engage and interact.

In one example, I learned there is a song that accompanies one of our games that gets the large majority of residents across facilities moving! “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” by Doris Day consistently has a significant effect on residents in their 70s and 80s. Even for people who struggle to express themselves through words, the song gets them singing immediately. They move, they smile, the entire atmosphere changes! Music reminiscence evokes memories of objects, people and places. 

When I am designing new games and solutions to stimulate people living with dementia, the most important consideration always is ensuring that the finished product fits the needs, wishes and desired outcome of the target group. It must evoke the intended interaction or effect. What works, I keep. What does not work, I toss.

I also ask a lot of questions to both people living with dementia and their caregivers, to find out what they like and what falls flat. I find that society, in general, has a way of talking about people with dementia but not to them. It’s vital I talk to them. As a result of acquiring this feedback, the interactive games I provide typically have up to seven iterations.

Given the range of abilities in people with early-stage through late-stage dementia, cognitive function also is a major design consideration for target groups experiencing different stages of dementia. For example, for people with late-stage dementia, any sensory experience or physical movement can deliver success if it sparks engagement or elicits joy. For someone in the earlier stages, a design may include more challenging, but playful, task elements such as guessing a missing letter in a word to practice language skills. As a user-centered designer, I must be tuned in to the specific target group, environment, user abilities and workflow through the entire development process, including the iterative portion that enables design improvements.

As research, feedback solicitation and observations help inform my design, I am reminded again and again how the end users — people in assisted living and memory care communities as well as nursing homes — are critical to the process. The design also means so much to them.

But for me, they are more than a collective target audience. They are my grandparents, all of whom had dementia. They are the parents and grandparents of my friends, neighbors and colleagues. They are human beings who deserve meaningful interaction and joy. 

Marije Seinen is a user-centered designer for seniors with dementia at Tover, a healthcare technology company working to creating a more caring and inclusive world for people living with cognitive challenges, including dementia. The company’s Tovertafel (“magic table” in English) uses interactive light projections to stimulate physical and cognitive activity and social interaction.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living marketplace column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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