The idea came when Dean Maddalena and his team noticed that something was missing. Something that made him sad.
Maddalena is president of StudioSIX5, an Austin design that specializes in interior architecture and design for senior living communities. The firm does everything from selecting finishes and artwork to laying out the walls in new construction and renovation, and designing its own line of furniture.
In their work, they noticed that a fixture in many senior communities, shadow boxes that hold photos and other memorabilia outside resident rooms, were often empty.
"We'd go into existing communities that were full and maybe a third or half of the boxes were decorated. We thought, why aren't the other ones decorated?" Maddalena said. "Does the family not actively participate? We didn't really know and it broke my heart."
The idea led the firm to create a new product: a new kind of shadow box that can be easily updated wirelessly with photos and other content. The digital memory boxes, as the company is calling them, have been rolled out to its first community, Tribute at Heritage Village in Gainesville, Virginia, and to another site in Florida with plans to expand to other locations in some of the 29 states where StudioSIX5 has clients.
In a demonstration room set up at the company's Austin headquarters, Maddalena recently demonstrated how the device works: it's a simple enclosure mounted outside a resident's room holding an 8-inch Lenovo Tab 3 tablet device. A caregiver can upload photos, videos, or other content on behalf of residents and their families using software designed by StudioSIX5, managing all the memory boxes.
But they're meant to be more than decoration. Maddalena said the goal is to incorporate the boxes as part of memory therapy specifically for residents suffering from Alzheimer's disease. "With Alzheimer's residents, you're always trying to engage them," he said. "Families can provide photographs specific to that resident, something from their history and see if anything engages them. They can begin to use it as a jumpboard for the rest of the therapy program."
It can also incorporate the room number and name of the resident, and in the future, StudioSIX5 plans to add RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology that could detect when a resident is nearby and let them know they're approaching the right room.
The company is also introducing a collage array of large screens for senior communities lobbies and hallway using the same software. The five 32-inch screens are artfully arranged and can display photos from community events, activity schedules, menus, news feeds or even videos from YouTube.
José Patiño, IT Manager at StudioSIX5, said the software requires some training for the person who'll manage it for a facility, but that it's meant to be easily to use and update.
"It's connected to Wi-Fi and we'll show them how to upload and switch images, how to do transitions and how to upload videos if they want," Patiño said.
At the Virginia site, 34 boxes and four screen collages were installed, and at a second site in Florida, 44 boxes and five collages were set up with a third location planned in a few weeks.
Maddalena said a device like the memory box fits in with an industrywide trend in offering more high-tech products for seniors and more concierge-style services within senior communities. Most of the work his company does, about 85 percent he said, is new construction, but renovations are increasing as these shifts take hold.
"There's so many in the past five years," he said. "So many new communities have been built that everyone wants to move into the them, so the older communities have to re-invent themselves."
The average age of people entering senior communities is around 83, he said, but often the people helping choose the place are baby boomers assisting their parents who may also be looking to the future for themselves.
"It's often the first opportunity for communities to market to baby boomers, to get them to say, 'This is really nice, why would you want to postpone living there?' " Maddalena said.
StudioSIX5, which has about 72 employees, most in Austin with about four in San Antonio, was founded in 2003. Its name is a play on the day it was founded (June 5) as well as the typical retirement age for seniors. Maddalena said he hopes that through the design work the company does, it can help residents of senior communities get more individualized care.
"Every resident should have that opportunity to have something outside that door, some kind of acknowledgment that they're there," he said.