Prof working with Mayo Clinic on products for aging seniors

NSCAD’s Glen Hougan studying the hacks people use to adapt products to their aging bodies

Glen Hougan of NSCAD University is using observations gleaned from his empathy suit to add to the Mayo Clinic’s research on the day-to-day challenges of aging. Photo: Candace Thomson
Glen Hougan of NSCAD University is using observations gleaned from his empathy suit to add to the Mayo Clinic’s research on the day-to-day challenges of aging. Photo: Candace Thomson

An elderly woman decides it’s too difficult rooting around for a dropped bar of soap. With her stiff joints and arthritic fingers, the slippery bar is hard enough to grasp, let alone to bend down to get. So she takes a pair of pantyhose, ties them to her shower head and sticks the soap inside.

It’s an adaptation one professor finds intriguing – and instructive.

Glen Hougan, a professor of design at NSCAD University, is collaborating with one of the most prestigious hospitals in North America – the Mayo Clinic – to make products easier for seniors to use.

Hougan became known in the health community for the empathy suit he created in 2009. He and his students worked with a local seniors’ resource centre, Spencer House, to research the effects of aging.  Hougan’s creation, fashioned from a diving suit, bits of hockey gear and Velcro straps gives researchers a chance to experience first-hand what it’s like to get older.

A few years ago he taught a class called Design for an Aging Population and realized some of his students had an attitude common in society: ageism.

The students believed seniors were to be pitied, they were disabled, slow and suffering a fate most people fear – getting old. Hougan says he wanted to show students that, while disability did affect some seniors, not all were frail and helpless.

Hougan created the Ten Step Plan for Ageism Reduction in Design. The plan includes goals from making designers aware of their own stereotypes of the elderly to making more stylish and functional products for seniors. 

NSCAD University’s Glen Hougan explains how his empathy suit works. He’s using observations gained from using the suit to aid the Mayo Clinic’s research on the difficulties of aging. Photo: Candace Thomson
NSCAD University’s Glen Hougan explains how his empathy suit works. He’s using observations gained from using the suit to aid the Mayo Clinic’s research on the difficulties of aging. Photo: Candace Thomson

These functional products are also called product hacks, a term Hougan uses on his Pinterest site, a content-sharing online bulletin-board that lets users “pin” images or videos dedicated to them.

Hougan is using his expertise in the aging process and ageism to help the Mayo Clinic of Minnesota’s Center for Innovation, and received a research fellowship from the clinic in June. The centre has a Healthy Aging and Independent Living lab that, according to its website, designs products and services promoting “health and safety, while sustaining independence and improving quality-of-life.”

“We intend to pilot new services, care models and technologies around such themes as connection and engagement, health and wellness, and home safety,” says administrative director Barbara Spurrier on the lab’s website.

Last the summer Hougan went to seniors’ homes to study how residents adapt to their surroundings to make their lives easier.

Design and medicine share a common goal of creating services for the “user.” The “user” is the person that uses the product. This approach gives designers a more personal insight into the product they’re designing, and Hougan says health care professionals work the same way.

“That’s the connection,” says Hougan. “They focus on people, and we focus on people … putting doctors and designers and other experts together, the glue is design thinking.”

Working with the Mayo Clinic is just the start in a much needed change in compatibility of products for seniors, Hougan says.

“They are the people that use the services and you’ve gotta work with them… all professions need to get together. That is the nut to crack in health care.”

 

 
 

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