As populations across the world age, diseases such as dementia are likely to have an outsized impact on society. Indeed, studies estimate that 80 percent of those living in a care home currently have dementia.
Many of the attempts to improve matters focus around encouraging the kind of social encounters that so often elude us as we get older. Indeed, I wrote earlier about a sharing economy style approach whereby the elderly open up their homes to younger people looking for affordable accommodation. So the young adults get somewhere affordable to live, and the older adult gets companionship and help around the house.
A team of researchers from Cardiff Metropolitan University are attempting to help us laugh away dementia. LAUGH (Ludic Artefacts Using Gesture and Haptics), is a global consortium that’s building on this work and using a design approach to make us smile and provide us with more social interactions as we age.
At the heart of the project is the development of smart-textiles that can be used by those suffering from late-stage dementia.
The textiles are made by a collection of families, carers, and health professionals that are then used by housing provider Gwalia Cyf. Each garment comes with a bespoke design that’s related to each user's life. The idea is that by designing a garment, it can help to refresh their sense of self.
The team believe that the garments can eventually be enhanced with sound and vibration capabilities to extend its sensory properties.
For instance, music can be incorporated into the garment via MP3 players and programmable microelectronics that are designed to be operating via touch.
All of these things are designed to provide users with reminders of things that they hold dear, whether they are sounds or images of family and pets.
Sounds are activated by a touch sensor that is connected to a micro-controller that can easily be taken out of the blanket when it’s washed. Early feedback suggests that the blankets have helped stimulate conversations when patients had been visited by friends and relatives.
It’s an example of what the team call 'compassionate design,' and they hope that it will play a role in increasing the happiness of those with the terrible condition.