While many retirees are eager to trade the harsh winters of Massachusetts for a life of leisure in the Sunshine State, Helen and Burton Cook recently made a reverse move. After 30 years in Florida, the Quincy natives relocated to Natick last spring to be near their three daughters for added support with health challenges.
Since the end of January, however, Helen, 84, and Burton, 85, have been receiving a different kind of assistance. They are participating in the Engineering for Humanity course at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham.
In the course, 11 senior citizen “community partners” work alongside eight students from three nearby colleges — with Wellesley and Babson joining Olin in the consortium — to design solutions to everyday problems.
The course has benefited both seniors and students. The elders enjoy collaborating on creative solutions to their challenges. Students come to appreciate what seniors face, and learn how to adapt their thinking to address real-life problems. And everyone involved says they enjoy the interactions.
Created by Olin professors Caitrin Lynch, who teaches anthropology, and Lynn Andrea Stein, who specializes in computer and cognitive science, the course is in its third year with funding from a Healthy Aging grant from the MetroWest Health Foundation in Framingham. While Olin previously partnered with the Needham and Wellesley councils on aging, this year’s class involves seniors affiliated with the Natick Council on Aging.
According to Lynch, the course’s mix of engineering, liberal arts, and business students provides a range of perspectives and skills to the process. And the intergenerational arrangement helps the students focus on identifying designs that match their community partners’ needs and values, rather than assuming their engineering expertise means they know best.
“The goal is to create solutions that make a difference by helping people live more happily and successfully in their homes,” said Lynch, who teaches the course with Ela Ben-Ur, an adjunct assistant design professor at Olin. “It’s hands-on learning that integrates anthropology with engineering design for social good.”
Early on in the course, students were familiarized with the physical challenges of aging by engaging in “empathy exercises” simulating arthritis, macular degeneration, hearing loss, and impaired mobility. They were introduced to their community partners at Olin, and got to know one another over dinners, activities such as bowling, and visits to the community partners’ homes to get a firsthand understanding of their needs.
During a design review session on March 11, Olin freshmen Justin Poh and Lauren Froschauer presented their ideas for the Cooks, who have been married for 63 years. To help Helen remember to take her three pills each day, they proposed a device with a buzzer and a removable, pocket-sized canister that vibrates at an appointed time.
To ease the pain that Burton suffers from neuropathy, which he likens to having stones in his shoes, they mounted balls of various sizes on a platform that rests on the ground so Burton can massage his own feet throughout the day, rather than wait for Helen to do it at night.
Team Fix It All — Babson senior Jeremy Liu, Babson MBA student Shubhangini Prakash, and Olin freshman Hayley Hansson — is concerned about Nancy Geiser’s practice of gripping bottles with pliers and then using knives and screwdrivers to pry off twist caps. Their suggestions include a long-handled opener that provides added leverage, and motorized and slicing devices to break through the plastic seal on bottles and cartons.
“We want Nancy to have less pain, less worry, more control, and more freedom to purchase whatever she wants,” Liu said.
Geiser, who insisted she is “ready to adopt” her team of students, wasn’t the only one who praised their ingenuity.
“I wish I had one,” community partner Helen O’Malley said of the devices. “I can never get those open either.”
Leslie Jose uses a combination of crutches, a walker, and a scooter to cope with her severely restricted mobility from post-polio syndrome. She is working with Olin freshman Sean Karagianes, Wellesley senior Kathryn Kenney, and Babson MBA student Tamanna Ahmad to develop a tray with adjustable dividers that can be attached to her walker so she can carry reading and writing materials, food, and a cup of coffee.
Jose explained that the tray she uses now slopes downward and doesn’t have a rim wide enough to prevent items from falling off. Then she has to either kick them to her destination or wait for someone to come along to retrieve them.Continued...