Dining with dignity

Most people can enjoy a hot cup of coffee without thinking about pain or spills. But arthritic knuckles, Parkinson’s shakes and the impaired vision associated with dementia can cause frustration and danger when using traditional dining cups. In many nursing homes, the easy solution is a straw or a cup with a drinking spout on top—the adult equivalent of a child’s “sippy cup.”

Allen Arseneau, a biochemical engineer armed with a Stanford MBA, watched his grandfather struggle with the thin handles and narrow grips of traditional cups—the age-unfriendly design that took away his independence and dignity. He and his wife, Diana, a Harvard chemistry grad, spent the next two and a half years designing a new type of mug, with help from Karen Jacobs, a nationally renown occupational therapist. This combination of minds led to a whole new view on diningware design based on science.

The team’s coffee cups are designed with unique handles that have wider grips, special indents and a very specific shape.  This shape puts the hand into an anatomically neutral position, reducing pressure and pain on sore hands. Since many spills occur when a cup is being placed back on the table, they added a stabilizer nub to the base of the handle and rebalanced the weight distribution of the cup for ease of lifting. The drinking edge of the cup is tapered to match the curve of a person’s lips and aligned to force stray drops back into the cup.

“The problem with cups is that they were designed 8,000 years ago,” Allen says. “Why does the simple act of drinking have to be so hard?”

Next on the redesign table were plates. The couple created plates that look like regular restaurant ware, except the plate’s design keeps food—even rice—from spilling off the plate.  The new design included a wide base, deeply angled sides and a ridged rim. 

The popularity of the diningware turned into a startup company called Jamber, based in Hull, Massachusetts. The Jamber cup comes in 8 oz., 12 oz. and 16 oz. sizes, allowing for the jump from beverages to soups, oatmeal and frozen desserts. The company’s products are in use at senior living sites in 37 states, and the company wants to be in all 50 states by the end of 2017, Allen says.

A successful age-friendly design is one that is not embarrassing, and allows people to self-dine as long as possible, Allen says. “It’s not just about the utility of eating and drinking. Our vision is to create cutting-edge diningware that allows everyone, regardless of age or ability, to enjoy life more and experience dining in a dignified way.”

The diningware comes in bright white, yellow and red, the latter two colors known to stimulate appetite in those with dementia. The company’s next products will include utensils and cookware, including a redesign of pots and pans, which are “notoriously hard to pick up safely,” Allen says.

Topics: Alzheimer's/Dementia , Articles , Nutrition