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Addressing Issues of Aging

Addressing Issues of Aging

Students collaborate with members of a local retirement community in designing solutions to social issues associated with aging.

Students in an ID studio on healthcare design talk with a resident at Laurelmead.

In mid December, when juniors in Industrial Design made their “elevator pitches” for proposed ways to improve the lives of elderly residents at Providence’s Laurelmead retirement cooperative, there was a hint of surprise that students targeted the social rather than the physical aspects of aging.

But, as Kincső Toth 17 IL/ID points out, social considerations are never far from a RISD designer’s agenda. “In any [RISD] class or group that I have been in,” she noted, “social issues are at the forefront of our discussions. There is a serious concern on the part of most students to make the world a better place.”

Toth, who initially planned on attending medical school before choosing RISD, is among the 16 students who participated in Associate Professor Claudia Rébola’s ID special topics studio titled Changing Healthcare by Design. For the first half of the two-semester course, students focused on engaging health challenges within local cultures in Rhode Island, specifically older adult care. Now in her second year of collaborating with Laurelmead, Rébola insists that the future of healthcare “solutions will require an integrated approach of design innovation and cultural understandings,” a belief her students share as well.

“I believe the designer’s ability to analyze and solve problems is of key importance in establishing a spectrum of crucial care environments,” said Toth, who saw the studio as a great opportunity to create a “patient-driven healthcare system” that addresses needs associated with aging.

At the end-of-semester presentations at Laurelmead five small groups explained their proposals to target social isolation, civic engagement and health literacy. To stimulate interaction between residents, students propose games that reward health-conscious eating and a tea garden that could help generate funds for charity. To help build generational bridges, one group proposes an online "matchmaking" program that pairs older adults with children who share similar interests, creating a mentor-mentee relationship that could also improve a child’s academic performance. Another group offers to connect seniors with city residents through community art projects.

Toth and her partners, Katarzyna Matlak 17 ID and Court Skabelund MFA 17 ID, encouraged the seniors they spoke with at Laurelmead and at neighboring Epoch Assisted Living to write short stories about their everyday health challenges in hopes of imbuing health information with a meaningful emotional depth for readers facing similar challenges. Their prototype posits that these anonymous stories could be collected and published with the support of a partner organization in healthcare, something that Laurelmead Executive Director Craig Evans sees as beneficial for both readers and writers. Just like travel writing, said Evans, “you want to read [about living with an illness] from someone who went there,” adding that the writers would likely find the writing process to be cathartic and the opportunity to publish rewarding—especially since getting published is a common bucket-list wish.

As at any final crit, Laurelmead residents pressed students on both the design and ethical aspects of their proposals. But Evans was particularly impressed with how much easier these new ideas would be to implement than the products and devices developed last semester. He told students that he would be excited to try implementing their solutions at Laurelmead, which would allow them to refine the ideas as needed for wider implementation.

Toth looks forward to continue working with Evans and the Laurelmead community. “Even if our specific program doesn’t get implemented, it would be great to work with people who can teach us about what it takes to make such an idea a reality”—to change healthcare by design.

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