Getting Old and Forgetting Things

Design anthropology and the
medicalisation of ageing

This research explored the relationship between design and medicalisation in Aotearoa New Zealand. Working as part of a design team to develop a resource for older adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), I drew on my background in anthropology to provide a critical perspective on the diagnosis, and to advocate for other cultural possibilities and ways of thinking. This thesis ‘Getting Old and Forgetting Things’ explores how design might be better informed about the construction of new medical concepts in society.

I didn’t choose design as such. I started in anthropology and finished a Masters in 2013. I got a Research Assistant role at the Design for Health and Wellbeing Lab and while working there I was able to apply some of the things that I had learned in anthropology to a design context.

While I was working at the Design Lab, an opportunity came along to work on a project called Living Well with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). The project was around developing an online resource for older people experiencing changes to their memory and thinking. I interviewed about 28 people experiencing cognitive changes and their families, and worked with a UX designer to develop the resource. I was interested in applying theories and methods from anthropology to design. Until that point, I had just been focusing on ideas and theories, so I saw this as an opportunity to apply these to a real-world design project. One of the things I wanted to explore was medicalisation. This was one of the interests I had through my undergrad degree, and it just so happened that MCI was a new diagnosis.

Hopefully through the work that I did I was able to shift the conversation away from the diagnosis, which wasn’t actually that useful for the people that we were designing for. I was really enjoying the process of writing the thesis, which is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I had this vision of how it was all going to come together in the thesis, and I got to present the findings in a creative way. I saw it as storytelling. Bringing in theories and talking to people and piecing together what was going on.

If I got stuck, I would talk to my supervisors mostly and sometimes to friends, because it is useful to have someone who is completely outside of the project to talk to. But I would also write in my notebook to try and understand why I was stuck.

I did interviews with older people and their families. I also interviewed experts at dementia research labs and clinicians at memory clinics, making observations, taking notes. We also ran a co-design workshop with our users. We did user testing and
ended up testing our website with our participants. What we thought we were designing for wasn’t actually the most important aspect of people’s experience. People with MCI didn’t necessarily have concerns about their cognitive ability. It was more often around social isolation and loneliness, and so we had to kind of incorporate that in to the project.

I enjoyed the writing process but it was really challenging. Writing something that I wouldn’t have a final draft of for another 3 or 4 years and having that long-term goal in sight the whole time. This project meant I was able learn about design processes and ways of thinking that can be applied to any context, not just health, and so that

Centre for Design Research
Te Kura Toi a Hoahoa
School of Art and Design

Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makau Rau,
Auckland University of Technology


Susan Hedges
Mandy Smith

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© Centre for Design Research, AUT University 2021