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Stanford Challenges Young Designers To Help Older Adults


A contest held this week at Stanford University can change the way we live in the future. The competition rewards students for designing stuff that can benefit older adults.

NPR's Ina Jaffe was there. She watched the finalists present their projects. Ina, of course, covers aging. And she joins us occasionally for a conversation that we call 1 in 5 for the one-fifth of the population that will be 65 years old or more by 2030. Ina's in our studios at NPR West. Ina, thanks for being with us.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Hi, good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: What was there? I'm going to imagine Stanford University, it must have been cutting-edge, high-tech gadgets.

JAFFE: Well, you know, Scott, if you're hoping for a little robot that follows you around the house and always knows where you left your glasses - no. That's not what was going on there. In fact, what was really interesting was how low-tech some of these ideas were. For instance, there was a category for entries that help people with mobility problems.

And the winner was something called City Cart. It's a cool-looking thing on fat rubber tires that functions as a shopping cart and as a walker without really looking like one. It folds up for storage, it has brakes for dealing with hills. It even has a cup holder. And the designers, Eric Renard and Brandon Lopez from San Francisco State, got a $10,000 prize.

SIMON: Ina, any idea what inspired them?

JAFFE: Yeah, they were inspired by Dr. June Fisher. She's 82 years old and has severe arthritis and it forces her to walk using two hiking sticks, one in each hand. And that means she can't go to the farmers market, for example, something she really loves to do. But she can't bring anything back. So Dr. Fisher happens to work with the students in this industrial design class at San Francisco State. And they were inspired to create something that would help her take home those heirloom tomatoes she's so crazy about. At the finals this week, she talked to me about being City Cart's beta tester.

JUNE FISHER: I can go into small stores. I can go into boutiques. I can go into my bookstore and buy 10 books. One of my mantras for many years is that the user needs to be involved. Don't design for us. Design with us. And this is an example of it. I want that cart. It will liberate me (laughter).

SIMON: What were some of the other big winners?

JAFFE: Well, there were two categories. One was mobility, which I talked about, and the other was mind. And in the mind category, something called Memoir Monopoly won first place. It's a game designed for people with Alzheimer's or other dementias. And it's a little hard to describe, but it's sort of a computerized board game except instead of Park Place or Baltic Avenue, you land on a spot where family members have loaded in an old photograph, for instance, that you can talk about or you land on another spot on the board that plays favorite music and so forth. It's completely customizable, and it's intended to stimulate memory and social interaction between a person with dementia and his or her family. The lead designer was Cho Szu-Yang from Taiwan.

SIMON: I wonder, though, you go to a high-tech show these days and you see a lot of cool things that never really make it into general use. Is there any reason to think that a lot of these designs are going to be something people can purchase one day?

JAFFE: Well, I don't know if a lot of them will. That always depends on raising money and if someone thinks they can make money off of marketing them. But it has happened. The winner the first year that they had the contest did raise some money. She's now selling tableware called EatWell. It helps people with dementia feed themselves. The utensils have curved handles. You can just grip them with your fist. EatWell was designed by Sha Yao and inspired by her grandmother who had Alzheimer's.

SIMON: Ina Jaffe covers aging for NPR. Thanks so much.

JAFFE: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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