Adviser Joe Sample, left, students Seth Carlstrom and Shae Stein, and Les Craig, incubator director.

Montana State University students have designed a chair to improve the bathing experience for senior living residents who have dementia — and their caregivers.

The effort began when graphic design major Shae Stein saw the plastic shower chair used at Highgate Senior Living in Bozeman, MT, when he visited the community as part of a design class, according to a university press release. “It was so sparse, and one of the greatest fears of the elderly is falling,” he said.

Nurses at the independent living, assisted living and memory care community told Stein and his classmates that residents with dementia — disoriented by the water pouring over their heads, uncomfortable on the cold plastic and afraid of falling — often fought their caregivers during bathing, biting and bruising them. In addition, the chairs were difficult to clean.

So Stein and fellow students, among them engineering students Seth Carlstrom and Brandon Western and business student Alex McLeod, designed a new, more stable shower chair using the “design thinking” process they had learned, which focuses on the needs of a product’s end-user, employing empathy, brainstorming, iterative design, rapid prototyping and critique.

Warm water flows directly from the chair itself, eliminating the shock a resident can feel when touching a cold chair and helping prevent a resident from grabbing the showerhead. They named their product SecondNature.

When Carlstrom’s engineering capstone project and Stein’s design thesis coincided the year after their class, they began working on the shower chair again, gathering input from healthcare providers and bringing in another engineering student, Sterling McCullough. They implemented a new, more ergonomic and therapeutic design and worked with the university’s business incubator to fine-tune their business plan.

At the university’s recent statewide John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge, the SecondNature chair took second place overall and received awards for most innovative product, best undergraduate startup plan and people’s choice. The team earned $13,500 in prize money.

Now, with interest from local investors, Stein and Carlstrom are working with Carlstrom’s employer, Salient Technologies, to build the first full prototype.

Photo courtesy of Shae Stein.