Thanks for the memories
It almost didn't happen.
The newly doctorised Kanvar Nayer had one presentation left in him. He'd present at the Australian Association of Gerontology conference, pack down his gear, and then it was time to move on.
Until fate stepped in.
"I was packing up and there was a gentleman walking in and I thought, all right, I'll just wait five minutes," Kanvar says.
They spoke about Kanvar's Ph.D work, which had produced a prototype called MemoryBox; an intuitive multimedia system that provides a high degree of autonomy to people living with dementia. The man was convinced Kanvar had an amazing concept and, within a few short months, Kanvar was working with the Founder of CollabCare, Mr. Charles Greatrex. Together, they're now building the bridge between academia and industry to bring Kanvar's concept into the world.
But if you'd asked Kanvar about dementia back in his Monash College or even Monash University student days, he couldn't have told you anything about the ailment. "I didn't know what dementia was," Kanvar says. "I'm a designer, I had no clue about it."
It wasn't until he'd finished his undergraduate studies in Industrial Design that dementia became a topic of interest. "I came across a dementia Masters project and straightaway I was interested," Kanvar says. "My grandparents were getting older - they didn't have dementia - but looking at the statistics I thought: 'my parents might have this, I might have this!'"
Originally from Kenya, Kanvar says that in his culture children live with and look after their parents in their old age. So the opportunity to work in a field where he could use his design skills to improve the quality of life of the elderly was too good to pass up. Kanvar applied for and was accepted into the Masters program; the first step on his path to his Ph.D and MemoryBox becoming a reality.
"We soon realised this was turning into something really big because there was clearly a gap in the market," Kanvar says. "There are a lot of apps for people with dementia but you can't just give them a phone and expect them to use it. With dementia, you retain your long-term memory, not short-term, so the concept of touch-screen technology doesn't really exist for older people."
Kanvar set about designing not just another touch-screen device, but one that specifically caters to the specific needs of people living with dementia. He read more than 200 papers to understand its impacts and spent time with psychologists, residents at aged-care facilities, their family members and caregivers. From the size of the infra-red screens, to the force required to press the buttons, right down to the gaps between buttons, on-screen colours, icons and fonts, Kanvar explored every design facet to build the ideal prototype.
The result is a multimedia system that houses personal photos, favourite songs and movies, and even family videos. "The key was personalisation," Kanvar says. "Music, in particular, is really good at alleviating some dementia symptoms like agitation and aggression."
Kanvar's trials at aged-care facilities returned strong results including reduced depression and anxiety among residents, as well as increased quality of life. The benefits also flowed to caregivers who reported reduced burden and high levels of enjoyment watching the residents use MemoryBox.
But perhaps the greatest result for Kanvar was seeing how MemoryBox brought joy to the residents and their families. "There was one family who said they just wanted to see their mum smile again," Kanvar says. "We set up MemoryBox, loaded a photo and, boom, there was a smile. With another, we played the Richmond theme song and she started singing along and the carers were looking at her like 'who is this?' because it's a side of her they hadn't seen in a very long time."
"Another resident was a professional pianist. We played her own recordings and her fingers started moving as she played along with the music. Her family was in tears. It's in those moments when I know seven years of research was worth it. Doing these trials is a constant reminder that, yes, this is what I want to do. Seeing people smile is so rewarding."
Kanvar is now developing an accompanying app called MemoryShare, which allows family members to remotely upload videos, photos and songs. They'll even be able to record a video message and send it straight to MemoryBox. "You could send a video saying we're coming to see you on Sunday, which helps them know they do have company and they do have a family. And because you can view user logs, you could see that mum, for example, was watching The Sound of Music, which provides a conversation topic when the family go to visit, compared with those awkward generic conversations about the weather, medicine or lunch."
And the impact on his teaching methods at the College? "Working in industry has changed my teaching style completely," Kanvar says. "Now it's all about focusing on real life. So I encourage my students not just to do a bit of research and design something, but to find the research gap. We work in industry scenarios with client briefs so students can actually approach people with their work and say they've created something different."
Dr Kanvar Nayer runs the industrial design program at Monash College. He teaches Industrial Design Studio and Product Drawing, and is also the director of collaboration design and research at CollabCare. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.