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Textile students partner with seniors to design electronic pillbox, multipurpose walker with GPS

When Juan Hinestroza, Cornell assistant professor of fiber science and apparel design (FS&AD) in the College of Human Ecology, challenged a group of his students to apply what they had learned in class about smart textiles to solve problems experienced by senior citizens, he ended up with designs for two products that are so innovative that the students are applying for patents.

The products were developed with ongoing feedback from local senior citizens. One design is a walker that also serves as a chair, cane and handbag and includes an emergency call button and GPS tracking device in case the elder becomes lost.

The other clever invention is an oversized electronic, interactive pillbox that reminds users the time and dosage of their medicines. The device also incorporates memory foam for arthritic hands, fiber optics to offer visual alarms and multiple sensors to detect touch for turning alarms off. The pillbox also includes ways to give large-print directions on how to take each medication.

"FS&AD 466 -- Textiles, Apparel and Innovation -- is one of the courses that are part of the intergenerational design initiative Living Environments Aging Partnership (LEAP)," explains Hinestroza. "It is aimed at including local retirees and residents in intergenerational teams in Cornell courses that apply emerging technologies to improve environments for local elders."

LEAP, directed by Nancy Wells, associate professor of design and environmental analysis in the College of Human Ecology, is funded by the Foundation for Long Term Care and the Corporation for National and Community Services.

"I don't have any grandparents so I found it especially eye-opening to see what problems elders struggle with," says Laurel Detweiler '09, a FS&AD major. "Once we started designing our project, the walker, it was really nice to be able to show it to the elders and get their feedback on what they thought, their preferences and their advice."

She said that the project also allowed her to apply what they learned about high-performance fibers to hands-on problem solving.

Detweiler added: "The project was interesting because we were required to think more like an engineer in terms of the construction than ever before. But as designers we obviously still tried to make sure it looked nice."

Mayra Alatorre '09, also a FS&AD major with a concentration in product development, said that the course was one of the best ones she has taken at Cornell.

"By learning about new textile technologies as they are applied to a variety of modern uses, including architecture and consumer products, we combined many skills," she said. "[And] the hands-on experience we had in working with the senior was wonderful. ... I believe that seniors have a great need for helpful innovative products. The collaboration through the LEAP program with the community seniors was very gratifying."

Other innovative smart textiles-based products aimed at senior citizens designed during Hinestroza's course in the last two years include head protection gear with shear thickening fluids, a garment that monitors vital signs and contacts a doctor in a medical emergency, and a fashionable shoe with a temperature regulator.

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