LEAP Curriculum Leads to Improved Living Conditions for Older Adults

By Hall, Sheri | Human Ecology, May 2008 | Go to article overview

LEAP Curriculum Leads to Improved Living Conditions for Older Adults


Hall, Sheri, Human Ecology


Across the College of Human Ecology, students in different departments are coming up with innovative designs for senior living.

The entranceway of the McGraw House senior apartments in downtown Ithaca used to be dark and drab-looking. A single-file row of benches made it difficult for residents sitting outside to chat with each other. And no one paid much attention to a small grassy area nearby.

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Enter DEA 472 Environments for Elders. Associate professor Nancy Wells and her students--on a mission to improve an environment used by older adults--worked with residents and the management to completely redesign the space.

Now if you pull up outside of McGraw House on a balmy day, you'll find residents chatting in new outdoor sitting areas furnished with wooden glider chairs, or strolling by the new goldfish pond next to the entrance.

"It's a new lease on life for our residents and the building," said Carol Mallison, executive director of McGraw House. "We even have people sitting out there who never come out. All of a sudden, this whole new social interaction just happens."

That project was part of the Living Environments Aging Partnership, or LEAP--a three-year effort to bring together Human Ecology students and local retirees to improve environments for older adults. It is funded by the Foundation for Long Term Care based in Albany, N.Y., and the Corporation for National and Community Services. They're funding similar projects at four other New York colleges to encourage multigenerational learning experiences and improve the day-to-day living for older adults.

In 2006, there were 37.3 million Americans age 65 years or older. They represented more than 12 percent of the U.S. population. And by 2030, their ranks are expected to nearly double to 71 million. Yet despite the growing number of older adults, modern construction, design, and product development often does not take into account the needs of senior

citizens.

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Improving an environment could mean anything from developing innovative clothing and furniture to designing a large physical space, such as the entranceway to McGraw House.

To date, there have been six Human Ecology classes with LEAP curriculums--everything from Furniture as a Social Art to Textiles, Apparel, and Innovation. They each follow a similar model that begins with listening to problems that older adults face, and then designing solutions for them. Local older adults are recruited to consult with the classes.

"We make an effort to involve older adults with a range of abilities. There are very active seniors who participate, and also some people who live in nursing homes," said Wells, who is the LEAP director and associate professor of Design and Environmental Analysis. "Sometimes we're working with a real environment and making real products. Other times we're working on more conceptual projects."

Innovative Designs

Now halfway through its three-year grant, LEAP has chalked up several successes.

The Textiles, Apparel, and Innovation class--led by Juan Hinestroza, assistant professor of fiber science & apparel design (FSAD)--ended up with two that are so innovative that the students are applying for patents.

One is a walker that also serves as a chair, cane, and handbag and includes an emergency call button and GPS tracking device in case the elder becomes lost. The other is an oversized electronic, interactive pillbox that reminds users of the time and dosage of their medicines. The device also incorporates memory foam for arthritic hands, fiber optics to offer visual alarms, and multiple sensors to detect touch for turning alarms off.

There have been dozens of other innovative designs as well: a garment that is wired to contact a doctor in case of a medical emergency, a coffee table with a music box table in the top of it, and a woven armchair designed around the ergonomics of an older adult. …

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