‘It’s visual problem solving:’ UMSL students use design projects to connect with dementia patients | St. Louis Public Radio

‘It’s visual problem solving:’ UMSL students use design projects to connect with dementia patients

Aug 3, 2017

If you have someone in your life who is living with dementia, it can oftentimes be difficult to connect with that person. A new design movement, using person-centered techniques, seeks to aid that process for dementia patients and for the people who care for them.

A new UMSL graphic design class pairs design students one-on-one with dementia patients at a local nursing facility.

Students work with individual patients to create design-centered activities that will help them access memories or provide a service. Sarah Barton, a graphic design student at UMSL, worked with a patient using mosaics, clay and wood whittling, eventually creating a tactile workshop for residents in the retirement community.

Many of these activities include opportunities for patients to manipulate things with their hands.

Andrea Wilkinson, a guest professor and researcher at the LUCA School of Arts in Belgium, has been doing this kind of work since 2011. She said it is important for students to get out of the classroom and see how design can change lives.

“We’re creating interactions and sometimes it is more tactile with feeling objects but also students are trying to find where design fits,” Wilkinson said. “It is often really frightening to visit a person with dementia. Sometimes you don’t know what to say or do. That’s a design problem. The student can look at how design facilitates spending time with the person they care about.”

Wilkinson offered a story of a student she worked with in Belgium who was paired with a man who had been highly energetic and extroverted in his younger years but, over time, his condition deteriorated and he would not talk. He had no children, but one niece would try to visit. She would get discouraged about her inability to connect with her uncle.

The design student feared the niece would no longer visit her uncle, so she created the “Do Nothing Toolkit,” which included information about how to spend meaningful time silently and the importance of simple hand-holding.

“Graphic design is visual problem solving and while graphic designers are sometimes working on websites and logos and other artifacts, in this case our goal was to design experiences and ways to interact with other people that were meaningful and helpful to our partners at Brooking Park Retirement Community,” and Jennifer McKnight, an associate professor of graphic design at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

McKnight’s mother lives with dementia and said that she had been struggling to visit her mother and see the things she could no longer do.

“That impacts how I could be with her, which impacted her experience of my visit to her,” McKnight said. “When a designer can reduce my stress as a family member that makes mom’s experience better when I’m there. She does get to have a better me visit her.”

Listen to the full discussion about how design can help ease interactions with dementia patients:

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