This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker's piece for Forbes
By Steve Wunker
Dementia can be devastating for people and families. One of the most dreaded medical conditions is, sadly, also one of the most common, with more than 10% of US adults over age 65 experiencing it.
But can the story be reframed to concentrate on the bright spots? That’s the thesis of Together Senior Health, a company co-founded by a professor at UC San Francisco and a Lecturer at Stanford’s design school.
Unlike the army of pharma companies who have invested untold money and time into drugs for dementia-related diseases, typically with few results, Together has a totally different approach. It seeks to improve the quality of life of both patients and caregivers through neuroscience-based understanding of what still works even while dementia ravages the mind, and then to build upon those strengths to provide dignity where it’s desperately needed.
Together focuses on muscle memory, music recognition, and other aspects of the mind slow to succumb to dementia, leveraging these to enable patients to move and enjoy more of their time. This in turn provides a great boost to caregivers. There is even emerging evidence that preserving and enhancing these functions may slow dementia’s overall effects, but regardless of that scientific question the benefits of the program for patient dignity stand out.
I interviewed Deborah Barnes, Co-Founder and Chief Science Advisor; Cynthia Benjamin, Co-Founder and CEO; and Inna Sheyn, Head of Product. Here are five innovation lessons from Together’s story:
1. Get out of the conference room: Together’s team has expertise on dementia, but also humility. They started out with doing intensive user research and gained surprising findings. For instance, unlike typical stereotypes of older adults, their target customer wasn’t necessarily technology-averse; many had recently been in the workforce.
2. Don’t just try to fix: Barnes explained that traditional therapies for people living with dementia are quite different to Together’s approach. “Memory training and brain games are about trying to remember more, but they’re frustrating and not long-lasting for people with memory loss. However, learning in your body, muscle memory, and mindfulness techniques can be practiced no matter what your memory is like. People with dementia can also appreciate music, social interaction, and emotions. Rather than focusing on what participants can’t do, we flip it and focus on what they can do. For instance, we have people repeat movements associated with activities of daily living, and we try to enhance the positive emotions that people might feel, such as through having a gratitude practice at the end of each class so that people can reflect on something that brings them joy and happiness.”
3. Innovation often occurs through combination: By leveraging the principles of Human-Centered Design that Benjamin teaches at Stanford, the company looked at the full suite of issues faced by these patients. This approach enabled them to cross traditional silos in research, for instance by combining movement with mindfulness techniques. Then they sought to break down access barriers that have limited uptake of these approaches to date, such as through offering the therapy in peoples’ homes.
4. Broaden the playing field: While Together’s focus is on the person with dementia, the company recognizes that caregivers face enormous burdens and can also benefit from the program. Sheyn explains, “Caregiver participation is so important because it makes them closer. We give them a fun thing to do together, so it’s not that the caregiver feels that they’re constantly nagging. It gives them respite and something positive.”
5. Test to learn, not just to prove: It turns out that there were unexpected benefits to doing group lessons online instead of the in-person settings where the underlying scientific research had been conducted. Benjamin says, “it’s not just convenience. Doing this in the comfort of your own home allows people to focus more on the exercises and less on being in a new place. If you want to learn how to get out of a chair better, it’s best to do it in a familiar setting where you’re standing and sitting. Don’t expect people with cognitive decline to transfer learnings from a classroom to their home.”
The company is currently building out its offerings and scaling up. As it grows, the firm is keeping these five lessons firmly in mind. Benjamin, the CEO, summed up Together’s innovation approach. “Innovation isn’t always about solving a problem and bringing something totally new to the world. Rather, it comes from deeply understanding the needs of the people you are serving, and it may be about adding to or combining things that already work in new and insightful ways.”
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