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Senior Living Residents Inspire Next Generation of Tech Innovators

Demand is soaring for innovative senior care technology, with the total market opportunity estimated to be $280 billion. However, as engineers and startups rush into the space, some are creating new offerings that do not consider the needs and wants of seniors themselves—take, for example, a fall sensor product that would have required users to wear the same unattractive shoes all the time.

A senior living community in California is helping address this problem, having recently teamed up with a university to match up-and-coming product developers with residents. By collaborating on product design, intergenerational teams of students and residents came up with offerings that should meet the specific needs of seniors. And, following a competition judged by residents themselves, one of the products was crowned “Best Device to Improve the Quality of Life of Seniors” earlier this month.

“When you combine research and education, and the fact that the products could be impactful and made into businesses, it was really a grand thing to be a part of,” says Darolyn Jorgensen-Kares, director of operations for Continuing Life. The company provides business services and support for senior housing communities, including the one that was involved in the tech competition, La Costa Glen (pictured above). Located in Carlsbad, the community offers independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing, and memory care on a 60-acre campus.


Prior to her corporate role at Continuing Life, Jorgensen-Kares was executive director at La Costa Glen.

From a senior living provider perspective, there were few hurdles and many benefits to taking part in the design process and competition, and all signs point to even more collaboration down the road, Jorgensen-Kares and other participants tell Senior Housing News.

Pairing up to win

The roots of the technology design contest can be traced back to the campus of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and specifically the school’s Center for Healthy Aging. Last year, the Center’s Healthy Aging Initiative put out a call for grant proposals, asking for multidisciplinary research projects. Three academics who answered that call were Truong Nguyen, Ph.D., chair of the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department; María J. Marquine, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, who has expertise in mental health outcomes in aging; and Don Norman, Ph.D., director of the UCSD Design Lab and an expert in human-centered design.

“What we came up with was to create an educational program with the aim to be helpful for both students and seniors,” Marquine tells SHN. “For students, the aim was to increase knowledge and create deisgns that are human-centric, really taking into consideration the consumer. [We wanted them to] understand the aging process and foster an interest in pursuing a career in design and aging.”

As the idea developed, it took the form of the competition, in which teams of students would be paired up with residents at a senior living community. They would design products in collaboration to enhance the quality of life for older adults, and the winners would receive cash prizes.

The competition was open to all UCSD students, but one member of each team had to come from the Electrical & Computer Engineering program. Ultimately, the contest involved seven teams of three to seven students each.

To glean the insights of seniors, the UCSD project planners turned both to the school’s retiree association and to La Costa Glen. The community has a reputation for taking part in innovative initiatives like this one, and has worked with the school in the past, Marquine says. Also, La Costa Glen offers the full care continuum, so students would be able to get input from seniors with different levels of need.

Prototypes and prizes

On the La Costa Glen side, leaders kicked off their participation by floating the idea at a town hall with residents, Jorgensen-Kares says. Immediately, between 40 and 60 residents signed up, and participation grew from there.

As for why interest was so high, one contributing factor may be the resident profile: They are very tech-savvy and love participating in research, according to Jorgensen-Kares. Another helpful factor was that the Qualcomm Foundation was sponsoring the project, so it had the imprimatur of a highly reputable wireless telecommunications company.

At an initial event, the students were paired up with seniors to begin the process of getting to know one another, and to start the exchange of ideas that would result in the final prototype products. After that, the students and seniors set up further meetings to discuss and refine the product over the course of seven months.

UCSD engineering student Kevin Nematzadeh demonstrates the Mighty Cart to La Costa Glen residents Jane Ditmars and Sheila Griffin

UCSD engineering student Kevin Nematzadeh demonstrates the Mighty Cart to La Costa Glen residents Jane Ditmars and Sheila Griffin

“[The residents would] discuss their thoughts and struggles, whether it be shopping or activities of daily living, based upon their diagnoses,” says Jorgensen-Kares. “That’s how the students got ideas for different projects. Once the students committed to a project, they committed to meeting with residents on-site, off-site, and through the phone to get feedback … and that’s how the ideas got scrubbed down over time.”

All that effort culminated in a final event held June 4 at UCSD. There, the final prototypes were displayed and winners chosen—with the La Costa Glen residents casting their votes for the best entrants.

“I found myself very attached to the students and rooting for all of them,” La Costa Glen resident Sheila Griffin said in a prepared statement released by the community. “It was incredibly difficult to select one ‘best’ product.”

That honor went to Mighty Cart, a prototype of a foldable, motorized shopping cart that won $4,000 for its creators, the Fountain of Youth team. The $2,000 runner-up prize went to AirSave, a wearable system that inflates if a person falls to cushion the impact. And third place was taken by Team VITA, which walked away with $1,000 for a carpet that lights up when stepped on, meant to help seniors who are walking in the dark.

The process of working with La Costa Glen residents was unique, and they gave very constructive feedback, says Chao-yu Lee, a member of Team VITA. Lee also describes an interaction that illustrates the power of seniors to inspire the new generation of innovators.

“I will never forget the moment when one senior friend came and said he was one of the researchers who witnessed the invention of the first light emitting diode (LED), and he was really glad this technology could be adapted beautifully into a product like this today,” Lee says.

All the winning entrants have products that are well along in the process, and they’re close to being able to launch startups to take the offerings to market, Nguyen told the San Diego Union-Tribune. Some of the program participants do in fact have plans to continue down that path and have gone so far as to start webpages, Marquine says.

The right approach

From an operations standpoint, participation was not a burden, Jorgensen-Kares says.

“I had our dining room staff set up a continental breakfast a couple of Saturdays, when it was easiest for students [to visit],” she says.

Beyond that, the community was involved in communications about the project and getting it kicked off, from which point it took on a life of its own, she adds. One word of advice for other providers considering similar projects: Make sure that the activities director or life enrichment director is on board, as well as the executive director, as these leaders will be most directly responsible for making sure the process runs smoothly and successfully.

Both La Costa Glen and UCSD leaders also agree that the project not only was a success from the standpoint of building prototype products, but in fostering more understanding between the generations.

“Another thing we’ve observed is increased sensitivity of both sides,” Marquine says. “Seniors were not shy about telling students, ‘Go slower’ or ‘Speak louder, we can’t hear you.’ But I think [the students] enjoyed that.”

In fact, should the competition occur again, one change the students advocated for is even more interaction with seniors. Most La Costa Glen residents are relatively affluent and are well-educated, and the student engineers wondered about feedback they might get from seniors of other socio-economic backgrounds, Marquine says.

An aging sensitivity training was part of the program this year, she adds, but in the future, the program may include more structured didactic elements to help students gain more theoretical knowledge of aging to inform their work with seniors. Still, the collaboration this year was meaningful for the senior living residents, she stresses.

“They really liked having that sense of being heard, they were very proud of what the students had accomplished, and I think they felt like they were part of that process,” Marquine says.

Getting that involvement from seniors and taking their feedback drove the success of this project and might be something that other product designers would be wise to mimic, she believes. She sums up the designers’ approach to the residents this way: “We come here to learn from you, not, we have an idea for you.”

Written by Tim Mullaney