Finding the Right Fit: Design Lessons from People Living with Dementia – Marketplace Columns

Marije Seinen

As a user-centered designer, I have dedicated part of my career to improving the lives of people with dementia.

In the field of health, I have seen that the success of a product often depends on the ability of developers to get out from behind their desks. This special target group – people with dementia – requires me to be on site in memory care communities with our product prototypes, observing behaviors and verifying feedback from residents and their caregivers.

It’s always a privilege to watch them play with a game I designed and see the joy it brings to everyone. To elicit that reaction, I know the final design needs to focus on recognizable core elements that evoke responses and new experiences of dynamism.

Research shows that apathy is a significant challenge for people with dementia. They lose the ability to take initiative, which has a huge effect on their emotional and physical well-being. The design for this band had to be inviting, encouraging users to move, engage and interact.

In one example, I learned that there is a song that accompanies one of our games that gets the vast majority of residents in all establishments moving! Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” still had a significant effect on residents in the 70s and 80s. Even for people who struggled to express themselves in words, the song makes them sing immediately. They move, they smile, the whole atmosphere changes! Musical reminiscence evokes memories of objects, people and places.

When designing new games and solutions to engage people with dementia, the most important consideration is always to ensure that the finished product matches the needs, wants and desired outcome of the target group. It must evoke the desired interaction or effect. What works, I keep. What doesn’t work, I throw away.

I also ask a lot of questions of people 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 speaking on people with dementia but not at their. It’s vital that I talk to them. As a result of acquiring this feedback, the interactive games I offer typically have up to seven iterations.

Given the range of abilities of people with early to late stage dementia, cognitive function is also a major design consideration for target groups experiencing different stages of dementia. For example, for people with advanced dementia, any sensory experience or physical movement can be successful if it sparks engagement or sparks joy. For someone in the early stages, a design can include more difficult, but fun, task elements, such as guessing a missing letter in a word to practice language skills. As a user-centered designer, I have to listen to the specific target group, environment, user capabilities and workflow throughout the development process, including the part iterative process that improves the design.

As research, solicitation of feedback and observations help inform my design, I am reminded again and again how end users – people living in assisted living facilities and community care memory as well as nursing homes – are essential to the process. The design also means a lot to them.

But to me, they are more than a collective target audience. They are my grandparents, all of whom have 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 older people with dementia at Tover, a health technology company working to create a more caring and inclusive world for people living with cognitive challenges, including dementia. The company’s Tovertafel (“magic table”) uses interactive light projections to stimulate physical and cognitive activity and social interaction.

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

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