By Zoe Clark

As the baby boomer generation begin to age, many are affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Patients undergo cognitive and physical impairments that compromise  their minds and bodies, until they can no longer function independently.  These changes and losses are complex and painful for patients and also  for their  families. Wesley Chau, a recent grad of the Industrial Design department at Rhode Island School of Design attempts to make this transition easier using a unique weighted blanket. The Comfort Device is a wearable module that that integrates three multi-modal therapies: weighted blanket therapy, sound therapy, and heat therapy.

Wesley answers some questions D+H had for him:

A lot of your work focus on sensory design. What do you find so intriguing about this field?

“Before pursuing ID at RISD, I was leaning towards a health sciences/pre-med direction. The field of sensory design is really exciting because it grants me the opportunity to deal with related health issues through the lens of ID and creative thinking.” 

Your Comfort Object Project started in a self-directed senior studio, how did you develop the project idea? Take us through the process. When did you first become interested in designing for the aging population?

“Prior to senior studio, I took Leslie Fontana’s advanced studio “Designing for an Aging Population”. My interest in taking this course came from a curiosity in designing for consumers like my grandparents. Both my grandparents were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. This personal connection informed my work with a level of empathy and drive. After spending a semester designing story-telling tool kits for A.D. families, I knew there were more design opportunities within the realm of dementia. Later, I submitted a proposal for the spring senior studio on designing for dementia patients.”

What were some of the design challenges you encountered? What surprised you most in your experience?

“Design challenges included balancing form with usability and being able to step away from a project phase and move forward. When I had the opportunity to have my working prototype tested on a long-term care resident, I had to hand my model off to the resident’s daughter and let the user react alone with the object. Being physically absent from testing was difficult and to my surprise, relieving. It allowed me to have complete faith in my work and to step away from the process for a moment, which is healthy.”

What Next?

“I hope to re-iterate the design once more. After consulting with other professionals in healthcare, I am getting new suggestions and ideas for simulating these sensations through alternative modes of sensory input. I am also keen on improving the product for manufacturability. The goal is to continue this project on the side and to acquire support and testing trials from nursing homes.”

Anything else you want to comment on, or include?

“The aging population (ie. the baby boomers) may not seem like a major demographic to design for today, but within the next 5-10 years, they will take up a huge portion of our population. They will demand exceptional design solutions to address their growing needs in all facets of daily life. It’s a really exciting area and I’m looking forward to seeing the design world embrace it.”