Designing for dignity for older Canadians
November 26, 2013

Gary Markle started thinking about how clothing design could be modified for seniors after creating a bathrobe for his mother.

“I was taking care of my mom who has Alzheimer’s and dressing was becoming an issue for her,” explains Prof. Markle, assistant professor, in NSCAD’s Textiles/Fashion Department. “I wanted to make something for her that she could put on herself and that was beautiful—that didn’t have the stigma that says ‘I’m old, infirm and I’m losing my memory.’”

The bathrobe he made appealed to his mother’s taste; it was simple and elegant. Instead of buttons or zippers, it fastened easily at the side with a cloth twill tape tie. She loved it.
It made him think of what else could be designed especially to meet the needs of seniors.

“So much of what is aimed at seniors is undignified, clumsy and ugly. I got thinking about what kind of modifications could be made that allows for independence and boosts self esteem.”

He calls it “designing for dignity.” That research, in collaboration with NSCAD’s Industry Liaison Office and Glen Hougan, Associate Professor in NSCAD’s Design Division, was recently successful in attracting $200,000 in funding support over two years from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

There are three aspects to the professors’ project called “Design for Healthy Aging.” One stream, as mentioned, is functional clothing design and accessories for seniors. The second, on medication management systems, extends out of Prof. Hougan’s research fellowship in healthcare innovations at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. And the third, in collaboration with the Nova Scotia Community College for prototyping and development, has to do with assistive aids for the bathroom.

Prof. Hougan, a leader in design for aging populations, says the research will involve what he calls “ground-up designing.”

“In other words, we’re not designing based on assumptions, but on research and collaboration,” he says. “That means a lot of listening and asking questions.”

Prof. Markle adds: “I think this is the important part. We will be working directly with seniors from Northwood, another partner on the project, talking to the people who could benefit and asking them what they need, what they want, and letting that feedback guide the development of design.”

Another important aspect of the research is the potential to attract graduate students to NSCAD who would be interested in paid internships and research experience. Not to mention the opportunities for collaborations with other universities and the commercial potential of products that may come out of the research.

“I think there is something bigger in play here for NSCAD—that we have the expertise to offer in the healthy aging field and can push the research along,” says Prof. Hougan. “And what an opportunity for design. We can be at the forefront in terms of finding solutions for the aging population and understanding the issues they’re facing.”

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NSCAD professors Gary Markle and Glen Hougan are collaborating on the research project, Design for Healthy Aging.