Chantilly High School freshman Aru Rajpurohit remembers seeing her great-grandfather struggle to drink his morning tea and other beverages, his hands shaking from Parkinson’s disease.
“As a young child, it was heartbreaking to see him like this,” Rajpurohit said. “Often he was embarrassed after spilling in front of friends and family.”
Motivated by the memory of her great-grandfather, she’s always wanted to develop a solution for this problem of spilling caused by tremors. On Monday, March 28, Rajpurohit presented her invention called StabilityCup, a shock-absorbing beverage holder, at the first Assistive Technology “Shark Tank” Challenge for Fairfax County High School Students.
Six finalists from Chantilly High School, South Lakes High School and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology presented their innovative solutions for solving different problems that senior citizens face.
The challenge originated from the Fairfax County 50+ Community Action Plan Technology Committee, which has been working on an initiative called “Help People Stay in their Homes with Technology.”
Sharon Lynn, director of the Fairfax Area Agency on Aging, said the motivation for creating the challenge was twofold: “Many students don’t have grandparents that are local, that they get to interact with. They’re not really aware what it’s like to have a grandparent nearby.”
But also, Lynn said, they wanted to encourage students to think about the possibilities for how technology can benefit people, “not just to make life easier in some way, but can benefit older adults, help them live at home for a longer period of time and benefit the community.”
The full 50+ plan includes 31 action items from a long-range trends and needs analysis to increasing employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for older adults.
Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) chairs the 50+ full committee. He said “we’ve got a long way to go” implementing initiatives like prenotification of medical conditions for 9-1-1 calls and ensuring housing options for seniors. However other projects including older adults visiting elementary schools to read and interact with students (“Grand Involve”), and a free, ride-scheduling service (“Northern Virginia Rides”) “are moving forward at light-speed.”
Herrity is especially excited about initiatives like Grand Involve and the Shark Tank Challenge that engage older and younger adults, that get the generations helping each other.
“It’s the communication piece,” he said, “ and getting seniors to use technology as an avenue to expand their communication and knowledge they might be missing out on.”
Srijay Kasturi, a sophomore at South Lakes High School, repurposed an ultrasonic sensor he had been developing for use with camera tripods to fashion an aid for older adults with impaired vision.
“Many seniors would rather suffer from a lack of vision than use the ‘white cane’ that blind people use,” Katsuri said. “Then they get labeled as a blind person.”
“Stride” attaches to the user’s shoe and scans up to six feet ahead within a 45-degree cone. If something’s in the way, the unit sends a vibration to a wrap around the person’s ankle.
Kasturi tested the product at both the Herndon Senior Center and Nova Labs. Though he got a lot of positive feedback, he also saw a lot of room for improvement. One user with diabetic neuropathy wasn’t able to feel the vibrations, while another was unsure of whether to go left or right to avoid the obstacle in front.
Kasturi’s initiative to go out and test the design multiple times impressed Mike Waddell, managing partner and co-founder of Reston-based Integrity One Partners, an information technology solutions firm for government clients that sponsored the challenge.
“This youngster, something touched his heart,” Waddell said, “and he decided was going to do something about it.”
Stride wasn’t the only product that had hurdles to develop. Waddell said he was surprised that almost all of the students had a story about how they tried to make something, it didn’t work, and they kept at it.
Waddell said he appreciated “their thoughtfulness and tenacity, to go after something like this, develop all the software and hardware solutions on their own.
“These are they types of kids we’re looking to employ,” he continued. “It’s why we do this, to show the younger generation how much we appreciate what they’re doing.”
Tanvi Nallanagula, a sophomore at Chantilly High School, was part of a team that designed and built the Ledge Wedge, an automatic light that brightens staircases to help decrease the amount of injuries that occur from falling.
“Seniors are a really valuable part of our society,” Nallanagula said. “You sometimes forget that. As you talk, you can learn so many things. They still have a lot to teach us and it does no good to abandon or forget them.”
Winners of the Shark Tank Challenge will be announced at the Fairfax Area Living Well, Aging Well Summit, a free convention of vendors, resources and services for seniors scheduled for Saturday, April 16 at the Fairfax County Government Center.
The website for the summit is www.livingwellfairfax.org. More information is also available by phone at 703-324-7647. For more information on the 50+ Community Action Plan, visit www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dfs/olderadultservices/fairfax50plus.htm or call 703-324-5720.