My grandmother came to live with my family when I was in high school, a few years after my grandfather died. Shortly after that, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and spent the next several years dealing with increasingly incapacitating tremors, stiffness, and muscle weakness throughout her body. Though her mind remained sharp until the end, the degenerative nature of the illness was hard to witness; she was slowly losing her independence because she struggled so with the most fundamental aspects of self-care and daily tasks.
Assistive technology for people afflicted with Parkinson’s has come a long way over the past decade. Devices to assist with walking, getting dressed, and bathing have been created to counteract the shakiness, lack of stability, and balance problems that can be experienced by those with the disease. Here we will look at tools that assist with eating, and the most fundamental of communication means, writing.
Designer Lucy Jung found herself considering how to help victims of neurological trauma when she herself was diagnosed with a brain tumor in her 20s. Thankfully she recovered, and was inspired to create tools for people with chronic conditions like Parkinson’s Disease. Said Jung, “When you’re talking about designing for the chronically ill, a lot of designers focus on basic life needs. But our lives aren’t just eating and breathing. It’s also writing, and drawing, and singing, and a load of other things that give people joy. So we wanted to focus on that.”[i] Her ARC pen is still in development. We are not affiliated with her project, but know that it’s on-hold for the foreseeable future.
Parkinson’s Disease is diagnosed through a complete assessment and neurological examination including brain imaging, but recent studies indicate that difficulty with handwriting, like micrographia, can be an early indicator of the disease, and may allow successful early interventions before physical symptoms deteriorate.
Penmanship and writing are still important communication tools, especially for the elderly.
There are a number of writing tools that can aid writing for Parkinson’s sufferers, people with carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis, and even those who have recently had hand surgery. The Super Big Fat Pens for Arthritis (5 pack), Black Ink, Blue Body ($9.97 on Amazon) has a non-slip surface that makes it easier for those who have tremors, pain and restricted mobility in their hands to grip. It includes a detachable lanyard to keep it close at hand. It’s affordable, writes with a medium black ink, and refills are available at most major office supply retailers.
One of the most troubling side effects of PD can be difficulty feeding oneself, perhaps the most basic of self-care tasks; trouble swallowing due to dysphagia can occur at any stage of the disorder. This can become quite serious, as difficulty with swallowing can lead to food or liquid getting in to the lungs; aspiration pneumonia is actually the leading cause of death in people with Parkinson’s Disease. There are a number of strategies to deal with dysphagia, which also emphasizes the need for early intervention and treatment.
Sometimes the difficulty can be in merely being able to hold a utensil and direct food into the mouth due to tremors and the loss of fine motor skills and control. The GYENNO Steady Spoon (Amazon, $189.00) has a feature that electronically stabilizes the hand for ease in eating. The Steady Spoon has an easy to hold, ergonomic design, and is made with BPA-free, medical-grade materials. It’s rechargeable and automatically switches to “sleep” mode when not in use.
GYENNO also makes the Parkinson Spoon (Amazon, $189.00), an anti-tremble, self-stabilizing spoon. It is again, easy to hold and has an anti-bacterial silicone top to ensure safe contact with food. It works by adapting to the hand tremor with a gyroscopic effect that can reduce hand tremor by up to 85%. A fork attachment is available (sold separately).
Being able to eat unaided is a huge issue for people with Parkinson’s Disease. Assistive tools like these spoons can give people back a much-needed sense of self-sufficiency and safety. Not only that, being able to eat in public without embarrassment or fear is hugely helpful in maintaining a sense of dignity and confidence, and avoiding the isolation and depression that so all-too-often accompany a progressive illness.
In addition to early diagnosis, physical therapy and exercise and pharmaceutical approaches, assistive technology can be helpful to the well-being of people living with Parkinson’s. I wish that such tools had existed when my grandmother was living, but it’s encouraging to see that helping technologies are continuing to be developed and made affordable and accessible for loved ones who just want to continue to live with happiness and dignity.
[i] Brownlee, John (27 March 2015). A Pen for People with Parkinson’s. Co.Design. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3044291/a-pen-for-people-with-parkinsons