Jan. 13, 2009

Coat that cushions falls, machine to put pants on: Students cook up concepts to help elderly

Mark Vorreuter
Students in the course Textiles, Apparel and Innovation worked with senior citizens to develop concepts for clothing products that would make life easier for the elderly. Here, the students explain their final concepts to the seniors who collaborated with them.

To improve the lives of senior citizens, Cornell students have developed concepts for a portable machine that allows seniors to put on their pants without bending over, a winter coat that provides protection from the impact of a fall and a jacket that is easy to put on and take off while sitting in a wheelchair.

The projects were part of the course Textiles, Apparel and Innovation this past fall, taught by Juan Hinestroza, assistant professor of fiber science and apparel design in the College of Human Ecology. The course is one of a series of intergenerational courses sponsored by the Living Environments Aging Partnership, which is funded by the Foundation for Long Term Care and the Corporation for National and Community Services.

This is the third year that the class worked with local senior citizens to develop their concepts. The collaboration not only gives senior citizens the opportunity to voice their ideas but also helps students apply their knowledge to real-world problems, says Hinestroza.

"They're three generations apart, and yet they work together very well," he said. "It's such an interesting dynamic."

And, Hinestroza said, the project ideas "keep getting better and better."

This is the second year that several of the project teams are applying for patents. Among them is the team that developed "Easy Pants," a machine that allows the user to thread their pants onto a set of metal clamps. The user then lowers the pants, steps onto a footpad, and then presses a button that raises the pants to waist level.

Another team applying for a patent created "Assis Manteau: The Wheelchair Jacket." A brainstorming session with local seniors inspired the idea, said Kara Brass, a junior majoring in fiber science and apparel design.

"Many of them had talked about having loved ones who were in wheelchairs, and how so many different activities were hard when assisting someone in a wheelchair," she said. "The seniors talked about how hard it was to put a jacket on someone in a wheelchair and to take it off."

Her group couldn't have developed the concept without the senior citizens' input, she said. "The specific elders that my group worked with were very enthusiastic, had so much knowledge to bring to the table, and tons of ideas of their own," she said.

Working with seniors also provided inspiration to make their product the best it could be, Brass said.

"Their enthusiasm made this project that much more important to my group," she said. "We realized that people really were in need of the product we were designing and would definitely buy it if it were on the market one day."

Sheri Hall is assistant communications director for the College of Human Ecology.