How can we collaborate and help people design a better experience of later life?

How can we collaborate and help people design a better experience of later life?

Active Minds founder and social entrepreneur Ben Atkinson-Willes outlines his vision for improving the lives of people in our ageing society. 

Transform Ageing aims to revolutionise the approach to health, wellbeing and social care for people in later life, starting in the south-west of England.

Bringing together people in later life, social entrepreneurs and commissioners of health and care services, Transform Ageing will define, develop and deliver new people-centred solutions that better support the needs and aspirations of older people.

Transform Ageing is funded by Big Lottery and run in partnership with the Design Council, the South West Academic Health Science Network and the Centre for Ageing Better.

Active Minds was supported by UnLtd in 2015 to grow their impact.

I was inspired to start Active Minds when my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. We cared for him at home and as we watched his cognitive abilities start to go downhill, together with his vision and dexterity we struggled to find things for him to do to keep him entertained.

I noticed there were no resources available besides children’s toys. It didn’t seem appropriate or dignified that my grandad, a hugely accomplished man, was reduced to using Disney jigsaws and childish games.

As my University project, I designed him a jigsaw with enough support that he was able to complete it unassisted while also being age-appropriate.

From there I started Active Minds, a design company which specialise in creating products to support people living with dementia.

Dementia is the umbrella term used to describe the variety of degenerative diseases which damage the brain. According to Alzheimer’s Society, one in six people over the age of 80 have dementia. There are an estimated 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease which is thought to affect 500,000 people in the UK.

Identifying the Problem

When I looked across the care sector, it seemed quite commonplace care workers to use children’s toys with their residents or patients with dementia. Although the cognitive abilities of these individuals had declined, many were still aware they were being given children’s toys which was a source of frustration.

In addition, much of the research around dementia was talking about the importance of activities as part of dementia care. Stimulation and engagement had been linked to reductions in frustrated outbursts, sleeplessness and even reduction of anti-psychotic medication. It seemed strange that there was nothing designed for these unique needs.

The satisfaction of seeing my first puzzle work and the joy it gave my grandad served as inspiration to try to plug what was quite clearly a gap in the care sector.

Testing the idea

My main concern was that the products that people were forced to use were not fit for purpose, they had been designed around the needs of children. I felt it was therefore important that our products would need to be tested by their users – people living with dementia.

We set up partnerships with care settings (some of which we still work with now) to test and refine prototypes alongside people living with the condition.

The process was lengthy and still takes an average of 12 months from the initial concept until we are happy with the final product. We are happy when we see the product working. If someone is able to complete the activity unassisted this is usually a good measure for success.

Making the solution a reality

The biggest challenge when starting a business is just taking the first step into the unknown – I think that leap of faith holds a lot of people back. Once this had been done, however small or inefficient the operation may be, the first hurdle has been crossed.

For me, this was the decision to make 100 puzzles in my workshop at home. These sold out in just a couple of weeks through word of mouth, after that I was up and running.

Since then, there’s been achievements I’m proud of. In 2015, we received the award for Outstanding Dementia Care product. The team had been working so hard for the past few years to make sure our designs were in line with what our customers wanted and this was such a nice moment of recognition that we had at least got a few things right!

To make sure the products continue to make a difference for people we run regular social impact reports. These keep us informed as to how the products are being received and in what ways they are making a difference.

A recent poll we did across a care group gave us some great insights – 100% of customers said the products had helped them engage with the person with dementia. 72% said the product helped the person with dementia complete an activity they were previously unable to do.

The most encouraging feedback we received was from a lady who had just lost her husband, he had been living with Alzheimer’s disease for the past six years. She said the products were a massive help to her in the last 18 months and she wished she had found us sooner. This story always serves as great motivation to the team to continue to make great products and let more people know about them.

Plans of the Future

Awareness of dementia has grown substantially in the last few years. It’s helped people think more about ensuring products used by people with dementia are appropriate. There is potentially a whole host of recreational or everyday products which present challenges for people with cognitive impairments. Many of these could benefit from adaptation for people living with these conditions – we are excited to be playing a role in this transition.

There are potentially huge challenges to come within the care system over the next few years. When looking to adapt to these challenges, the focus should not be on what is convenient for a business working with people in later life. Wherever possible, businesses need to intervene early to collaborate with individuals and help them sculpt a vision for their later life.

If people have ideas which could improve the experiences of people in later life, my advice would be to get out and try it. There is a huge and growing need within this demographic and you never know where it might lead.

Find out more about Transform Ageing

Do you have an idea to transform the experience of ageing? You can apply for expert support and funding:

Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #TransformAgeing


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