Design and Dementia: The Birth of Active Minds

Written by Active Minds on Thursday the 20th of February 2014.


Ben Atkinson-Willes founded Active Minds in 2010. Here he writes about this journey, and his grandfather; his inspiration and reason for starting Active Minds.

My name is Ben Atkinson-Willes and I am the founder of Active Minds.

Over 16 years ago my grandfather, Chris, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I was 10 at the time, and had no idea quite how much of an impact the diagnosis would have on my grandfather’s life, and subsequently, mine.

A portrait of my grandfather in the garden

My grandfather had just retired from an extremely successful career managing a large building company when he was diagnosed. Over the years that followed my family and I found it painful to see how the disease gradually stripped him of his ability to enjoy life.

Nine years on I was at Kingston University studying Product Design, and in a stroke of serendipity my year were given a series of briefs from the RSA, one of which was to develop a product that would help to improve the quality of life of people in long-term healthcare. By this stage my grandfather was in full time care, and on reading that particular brief, I had a light-bulb moment; I then knew that I wanted to design a product to improve my grandfather’s quality of life!

I spent the following days shadowing my grandfather’s carers to build on what I already knew about his day-to-day life.

To me it seemed that his care needs were well catered for but that there was a real lack of activities to keep him going during the day.

When he was first diagnosed he became an avid jigsaw enthusiast. However, as his ability to perform tasks diminished, the jigsaws got simpler and simpler. He started with 1000-piece puzzles when he was first diagnosed, this quickly became 500, then 200, until he was only able to do 50-piece jigsaws designed for a 3 year old, and soon after the house started to fill up with children’s toys.

It frustrated me and seemed insulting that such a great man was reduced to doing jigsaw puzzles of cartoon characters whom he didn’t recognise, had probably never heard of and therefore meant nothing to him, so I was determined to source alternative activities which would have relevance to someone of his generation.

The more I researched, the more astonished I became by the terrible statistics of Alzheimer’s disease in the UK: Over 800,000 people currently live with some sort of dementia in the UK and the estimated cost of care is a staggering £23billion. That’s more than the cost of cancer, heart disease and strokes combined! I couldn’t believe that a problem of this size was being addressed by sitting people in front of a television screen and giving them children’s toys: I had found the brief I needed for my project.

It seemed like quite a simple idea to make activities designed for the under fives into activities for the over 80s – both need to be tough, clean and easy to understand, handle and use. The most obvious place to start was my grandfather’s beloved jigsaw puzzles… How hard could it be to replace Disney characters with a picture of a London bus and simply keep the already designed jigsaw underneath? As with all these things, the task was not as simple as it seemed.

The main difference seemed to be that a child could learn how to complete a jigsaw where as someone with advanced Alzheimer’s may be looking at that product for the first time (as far as they are concerned). Combine this with visual impairment and dexterity problems and the solution was not quite so simple.

While spending time with my grandfather I noticed that he often didn’t know how to start an activity but once he was doing it, the memories returned and he was able to do it by himself.

This was highlighted when it came to cleaning his teeth. Initially he would look blankly at the brush with no idea what to do. It’s a fairly strange object and I’m pretty sure you or I wouldn’t know what to do with it if we saw it for the first time. However, once I had put the toothpaste on, put the brush in his mouth and initiated the first few brushes the light bulb would come on and he’d finish cleaning his teeth himself.

The same seemed to be true for jigsaws; the first few pieces were always the hardest but once they were done, he was off. So this begged the question: How could I design a jigsaw that was so intuitive that he was able to complete it unassisted?

Pictures that show some of the stages of puzzle product development

After several failed attempts, this was my solution:

Large irregular pieces that matched up to coloured shapes on the background. Once he had done those first four pieces, the rest were easy. Assisted by the frame around the edge of the puzzle and a simple image of a spitfire that wouldn’t overload him with visual information.

He was an engineer in the war working on Spitfires, so the image also acted as a talking point once completed.

My Gradfather piecing together the first puzzle prototype of a Spitfire

Previously he was unable to complete even a 3 year olds puzzle but he was able to complete mine unassisted in 15 minutes and the sense of satisfaction that it gave him was plain to see.

In another stroke of luck my project was picked up by Hilary Dalke, a researcher at the university who specialised in design for people with dementia. She loved the puzzle and managed to find a small bit of funding to develop the product further.

Two people enjoying piecing together the prototype puzzles

I partnered with St. George’s Hospital and Barchester Healthcare to trial further designs and after 16 prototypes I had the final design.

Active Minds Mountain View Puzzle for Dementia with hand pictured demonstrating the puzzle's pieces

With enough money left over to produce the first 100 jigsaws, Active Minds was born. The initial response was huge, we sold out in the first two weeks and the proceeds were enough to continue producing the puzzles.

Over the next three years and with the fantastic support of Unltd (the leading charity supporting social entrepreneurs in the UK) the range has grown to 70 products. We have sold over 20,000 products in 11 countries and helped to improve the quality of life of over 24,000 people living with dementia.

At the end of last year, thanks to winning UnLtd’s Big Venture Challenge 2013, we joined forces with an investment partner, Albion Care Alliance CIC.

The investment provided by Albion Care Alliance CIC and the matched investment from UnLtd’s Big Venture Challenge means that Active Minds can continue to design, research and develop unique and innovative products and improve the life of those with dementia, and their carers.