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Ideas to Help the Elderly COPE Better

24 Mar 2011

Woodgrove Sec COPE

(From left to right) Shawn, Germaine and Shi Wei with prototypes of the products they designed.

Sometimes, it's the little things that count. Take an alarm that rings when it pours so that you can bring in your laundry in time. What about a contraption that makes it a breeze to thread a needle even if your eyesight is failing, or an automated denture-cleaning device?

Hatched to ease the daily routines of the elderly, these simple yet practical inventions emerged from the minds of students from Woodgrove Secondary School. The students had taken part in a Community Outreach Programme for Elderly (COPE), in which they flexed their Design and Technology (D&T) skills to create gadgets that were showcased and given the thumbs up by senior citizens at an Active Aging Carnival in November 2010.

Mr Tan Woon Siong, who heads the school's D&T department, explained that COPE is a community involvement programme for Secondary 3 D&T students that originated from a Teach Less Learn More (TLLM) Ignite II project. "We hope to create a channel for the students to play a more active role in serving the community, as well as provide them with a platform to enhance their design skills," he said.

The three Es of COPE

Launched in 2008, COPE is carried out with the help of the school's community partner, Sembawang GRC, and under the mentorship of Member of Parliament Dr Mohamad Maliki bin Osman. Before they hit the drawing board, students go through three phases to help them understand the needs of the elderly: Equip, Experience and Extend.

Woodgrove Sec COPE

These prototypes were exhibited at Sembawang GRC's Active Aging Carnival and got the thumbs up from many elderly residents who visited the exhibition.

During 'Equip', students attend a workshop led by Dr Mohamad Maliki, where they learn how to interview strangers and communicate effectively during door-to-door surveys. The students then take to the road in 'Experience', conducting interviews with households in the neighbourhood to find out about the lifestyle and needs of the elderly.

For many participants, interviewing actual residents was a far different kettle of fish from mock sessions in the workshop.

"Some spoke only dialect," revealed Shawn Ong. "So sometimes we couldn't fully understand what they said and had to ask them to speak slowly." Added the Secondary 4 student, who took part in COPE last year, "We also met some elderly residents who appeared uninterested. In such cases, we tried our best to get as much information as we could."

Woodgrove Sec COPE

COPE helps students to improve their design skills and better understand the needs of the elderly.

Despite the language hurdles, the students persevered and covered a total of 99 blocks, interviewing more than 10,000 families. The information collated from the surveys led to the 'Extend' phase, where the students attempt to design outreach programmes and daily items that address the concerns of the elderly.

One programme conceived by the students last year was a health festival entitled 'Live it up! Let's walk!' which featured a neighbourhood walkabout and games with attractive prizes. "Some of the elderly told us they enjoyed themselves and it was better than staying at home and not doing anything," recalled Shawn.

This year, Sec 3 Food and Nutrition (F&N) and Arts students will also join their D&T schoolmates in COPE activities. "The F&N students hope to do a healthy cooking session and the Arts students are looking at introducing art therapy to the elderly," shared Mr Tan.

Making life simpler and safer

On the design front, the students sought to forge products that would make life simpler and safer for the elderly. Shawn, for one, conceived of a tool that senses water and can be attached to a walking stick. "Some people have poor eyesight and may not notice puddles of water on the ground," he explained. "I hope that my product can help prevent them from falling or getting their legs wet."

The laundry alarm, which is attached to a pole and sounds when it rains, is the brainchild of Gan Shi Wei. "Some elderly may be hard of hearing or forgetful, so they don't bring in their clothes in time when it rains and the laundry will get wet," noted the Sec 4 student.

Woodgrove Sec COPE

Keeping fit with elderly residents.

Mr Tan revealed that this year, the product design segment will go a step further. Instead of drawing upon generalised data from the surveys, the students will have to interview a specific individual and design a solution that can improve the interviewee's daily life.

Besides beefing up their design skills, COPE has changed the students' perspectives on the lives of the elderly.

Germaine Lim, for instance, used to think that growing old meant being frail and home-bound. These notions were overturned after her conversations with elderly residents. "I learnt that companionship is important for the elderly," stated the Sec 4 student. "I also picked up some dialect from the interviews!"

Meanwhile, Shawn realised that communicating with the elderly was not as hard as he had imagined. "It is actually not difficult to bring them joy," he observed. "They are happy just to have someone to talk to and share their feelings with." As for Shi Wei, he summed up what was probably a common sentiment of COPE participants, stating, "I enjoyed the whole process. It was fun working with my friends and being able to bring joy to the elderly!"