It has been at least 15 years since Rita Maldonado Branco had to face the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in people she loved. Since her paternal grandfather showed more than occasional symptoms of memory loss – and, eventually, her maternal grandmother as well – Rita was missing the way she used to communicate with them. So much so that she decided to utilize her knowledge of communication design to facilitate interaction with her grandparents.
“Can communication design aid people with Alzheimer’s Disease?” This was the research question that guided Rita’s MA project at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London. When she went home to Portugal and started working on her Ph.D. at Universidade do Porto, her goal was to create practical communication tools.
Because it was hard for Rita’s grandmother to recognize members of the family, Rita came up with a memory card game her grandmother could use to “play with her family tree.” On one side of a card there is a photo of a family member. On the other side is a brief description of the person and the name by which her grandmother used to call him/her. There is also a question, which leads to another card, and so a “game” was created.
But what about her grandfather, who wasn’t a big fan of card games? According to Rita, he had been giving yes/no answers to all kinds of questions for a long time. She said, “I was looking for ways to bring our family back to his memory.” So, considering his taste for literature – he had written fourteen books –,Rita created a “family book”: each member of the family wrote a brief self-introduction, described some of the things he or she had been doing and tried to trigger in the grandfather some old memories and habits. The outcome was rather surprising. Her grandfather became really attached to the book and started seeing it as a portrait of his life.
“I thought about every detail of the book, including the typography and layout,” Rita explains. “We put one paragraph on each page, and the letters were big enough for my grandfather to read comfortably.” She also says she used a typewriter because it was familiar to him. “We were able to reach him through this book.”
Alzheimer’s disease causes progressive and irreversible deterioration of cognitive functions including memory, attention, concentration, language ability and thinking ability. And so Rita’s grandmother, who was an excellent cook, could not do her chores anymore, and simple tasks like laying the table became extremely complex and difficult for her.
When Rita realized this, she didn’t think twice: she designed a tablecloth with silhouettes of the cutlery and crockery and their right locations. “She was able to make visual connections between the drawings and the objects and got very happy when she set the table by herself,” Rita said of her grandmother’s newfound ability to live a partly normal life. “These are just simple ideas that can work pretty well.”
Rita adds that by trying to solve a problem that was affecting her directly, her objective was to be able to extend the results to other families with similar problems. “When my grandparents were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, nobody knew much about it. Now I see things differently: a lot of information is required to deal with people who have dementia. I hope I can help a little in this sense.
“When communication is great, articulation becomes even greater. The more effort that is made to address this issue [Alzheimer’s disease and dementia] in a positive way, the better,” Rita adds.
And so SOAP presentations took a page from Rita Maldonado Branco’s family book and help our clients to convey and articulate their messages through design that has meaningful application to everyday life.