a man sits at a mock-up of a car dashboard and steering wheel. a big screen in front of him displays a driving simulations. a young man and young woman look on.
Robert Sarison tests drives an "experience station" prototype with Fung Fellows Lena Bertozzi (right) and Nhut Nguyen.

Developing innovative tech to help seniors as Campus for Jewish Living evolves

Imagine a car — not a real car, but something like it — with a front seat, a dashboard, a steering wheel and a computer screen where the windshield would be, showing you where you’re going.

At the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, this “experience station” is intended to help seniors keep their brains active, improve their state of mind and stimulate positive memories.

“Maybe you want to go to the Grand Canyon, or you want to go to Paris, or Honolulu,” said public health student Lena Bertozzi, one of the Fung Fellows at UC Berkeley partnering with the campus to design the experience station. Family members could also use the station as a tool to interact with their loved ones, uploading photos, video or audio from, say, a bar mitzvah celebration or a family trip.

Research shows that sensory stimulation can help older adults combat the effects of dementia.

“This is really a cutting-edge way of improving the psycho-social well-being of people with dementia,” said Robert Sarison, director of campus programs at SFCJL (formerly the Jewish Home).

The Cal partnership is one of several that the San Francisco facility is establishing as part of its mission to serve its residents, older adults in the community, families and caregivers more comprehensively.

Artist's rendering of the massive renovation underway at San Francisco Jewish Living
Artist’s rendering of the massive renovation underway at San Francisco Jewish Living

“People, as they age, they become more and more isolated and lonely,” said Jan Reicher, executive director of the Byer Square project, a 45,000-square-foot health and wellness complex that will open in early 2020. It will offer everything from a café to a health club to a beauty salon. SFCJL, founded in 1871 as a home for orphans, the aged and the infirm, is in the middle of a multiyear, $140 million expansion project.

Another offering will come through a partnership with the Fromm Institute. Affiliated with the University of San Francisco, it offers college-level courses for older adults. New art programming is being planned as well, with activities and lectures coordinated with exhibits at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

But most seniors are aging at home. Understanding that reality, as well as the importance of social interactions, the SFCJL also is considering ways to meet the needs of housebound seniors and their caregivers. To that end, a website will be built where users can enter a portal and do things like livestream events, make appointments and, most importantly, develop a sense of community. The website’s planned launch is in November.

Designing this virtual meeting space is another SFCJL project the Cal students are working on, along with the experience stations. The Fung Fellows, from disciplines as diverse as environmental policy, cognitive science and economics, problem-solve together on innovative solutions.

To come up with their proposals, students visited the campus to understand what life is like for the residents.

“We had to design around the fact that as their condition worsens they can’t really verbalize well,” said Megan Handley, a third-year bioengineering student.

Once the teams finish their prototypes, they’ll be presented to Reicher, Sarison and others. SFCJL is also getting designs from professional firms, hoping to choose from the best ideas before seeking funding and building six planned experience stations.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.