Crowd & Proud: Eatwell - Helping the Less Well, Eat

Sha Yao re-shapes a familiar tool set to help Alzheimer’s and other special needs patients (and their caregivers) enjoy meal-time with dignity. It's a utensil revolution that needs your help!
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Sha Yao re-shapes a familiar tool set to help Alzheimer’s and other special needs patients (and their caregivers) enjoy meal-time with dignity. It's a utensil revolution that needs your help!

It sounds like a scripted Hollywood drama: a grandmother helps raise her grandchildren, loving them as her own, only to develop Alzheimer’s and barely know their names. Unfortunately, this tragedy is real.

Sha Yao has invented Eatwell, a tableware and utensil set that makes eating easier for people with cognitive impairment, combating a few of the many declines that occur in Alzheimer’s patients. 

Yao and her team are in their final days of an Indiegogo campaign to help fund manufacturing and distribution of the set, which won first place at the inaugural Stanford University Center for Longevity’s Design Challenge this past April.

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“My grandmother was a constant inspiration to me at school,” Yao says, referring back to her education; an undergraduate degree at Soochow University in Taiwan and the graduate studies at Academy of Art University in San Francisco where she developed Eatwell as a senior thesis.

For people with Alzheimer's and other special needs who experience loss of appetite and motor skills decline, eating becomes difficult and frustrating, leaving patients under- or malnourished. Yao aims to improve the entire eating experience for patients “to make it easier for people to get enough nutrition by eating and drinking more, to maintain their dignity, and also reduce burden on caregivers by encouraging users to be as independent as possible.”

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With an MFA in industrial design and a registered design studio in San Francisco, Yao used to work for start-ups to help develop their product ideas, but is working at her studio and on Eatwell full time these days, aiming to get it to a place where she can either have her team develop more products, or partner with other companies to develop other helpful and meaningful projects.

As we all know, too well, the road is paved with good intentions. While many people have ideas they think will rival the proverbial sliced bread, inventing a product that makes it to market is no small feat. Not Impossible Now's Valentina Valentini spoke with Yao about how she got it done.

Not Impossible Now: What was the impetus for this invention?

Sha Yao: Growing up in Taipei, my grandmother helped take care of me and my sister since my parents both had to work and often could not be home. She was the kind of grandmother who always gave us the best things she could offer, and was always there for me. It was 2007, the year between my undergrad and grad school when she was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and at the time I was the same as many care providers – I knew very little about the disease and could only listen to what the doctor told us, which was just to give her some medicine to ease the symptoms.

I had to watch as my grandmother gradually lost the ability to be herself, to take care of herself. I felt deeply sorry that I could not help much and could only accompany her sometimes to make her feel better. My family could also do nothing about it and saw the disease change her little by little, until she passed away in 2010. Seeing it happening was a huge motivation for me, and before she passed, I promised that I would find a way to help her.

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After you had the idea, what was the process like to implement the design, manufacture and distribution of Eatwell?

It took a lot of research to learn as much as I could about the disease. I wanted to get a better understanding about what may happen to a person with Alzheimer’s besides just the symptoms my grandmother experienced – what kind of difficulties they may have during a typical day, how professionals take care of people with it, and what kinds of problems they encounter. I wanted to know everything about it, and built a network while volunteering at the Institute on Aging and at Irene Swindells Center for Adult Day Services, which helped me receive feedback when ideas began to formulate.

After the research phase, I started to think about finding solutions. It was another whole challenge to analyze the information I received, and start to apply it to my design. I was looking at how I could use design to solve those problems I’d defined. How to make the design look appealing and suitable for manufacture was also important. It took lots of effort for sure, but I have a passion for it, and a strong motivation to keep working on it.

Who did you partner with to see this come to fruition?

I developed the entire set by myself from scratch, but I had the guidance of my professors Ted Renteria, Jim Shook and Shiz Kobara at school. I also worked with many personal and professional caregivers that gave me feedback and helped me revise my design.

What is the purpose of the Indiegogo campaign?

It covers the molding for the items in the tableware set, the materials to build it, and shipping and packaging costs for our pre-orders. In other words, if we can reach our $70,0000 goal, then we can deliver Eatwell to people in need.

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What is your long-term plan for Eatwell?

The goal has always been to bring Eatwell to the market so that people who need the support and assistance can get it. We’ve gotten inquiries from several potential distributors all around the world. We’re talking with very esteemed experts in the field who are interested in a partnership, and we’re continuing to collaborate with prominent organizations and senior care and assisted living facilities in the U.S. and abroad.

In the future, we plan to develop more product lines for seniors since we have received lots of feedback and realize there is a tremendous need in an aging market. I hope we can continue to grow and make more products to serve even more people in need. 

To contribute to the Eatwell campaign, click HERE. It ends just before midnight (Pacific Time) on December 20, 2014. You can also find out more about Sha and the Eatwell set at their site: http://www.eatwellset.com/