Engineering students aid elderly with project

By James Danca

Engineering and technology students at NIU hope to give a lift to some of the nation’s senior citizens through “geroengineering,” to use the term coined by an NIU sociologist.

Mechancial engineering students, in a joint project with NIU’s gerontology program, are working on project designs for telescoping wheelchairs, lift and mattress systems for invalids, automatic wheelchair brake devices and a “back force measurement system.”

The designs represent the students’ “capstone” projects in a course taught by Romualdas Kasuba, NIU engineering dean. Students must develop feasibility statistics and may build prototypes for completion of the course. The origin for some of the ideas resulted from consultations with employees at the DeKalb County Nursing Home.

NIU seniors in mechanical engineering Royce Golembeck and Hazelton Avery have designed a “lift and mattress system for invalids.”

Golembeck can remember how difficult it was for him, as a 14-year-old, to lift his great-grandmother from a bed to a wheelchair, and notes, “The lift is designed so that the handicapped person or incapacitated elderly individual can move from wheelchair to bed, without having to rely on another person. The lift will have remote control and will eliminate frustration and embarassment,” says Golembeck, who had to redesign the top of the hoist to keep the patient always upright and to prevent rocking or rotating.

Avery has designed a massaging mattress pad that may be used alone or in conjunction with the lift. The pad is designed with “finger-like cylinders inside,” which can be individually inflated and deflated to relieve muscle deterioration and help prevent the development of bedsores.

Mark Ventrelli, a senior mechanical engineering major, is working on a hydraulic-design “telescoping wheelchair” that will rise up and level itself out to a bed. “We’ll look at it next semester and see how much it would cost to produce,” he said.

“The engineering design course provides a good mechanism for discussing what we’ve dubbed ‘geroengineering.’ I think there’s some real merit in one or two of the students’ projects — they may very well be onto something,” Kenneth Ferraro, NIU gerontology director and associate professor of sociology, said. Ferraro hopes to develop similar cooperative relationships between gerontology and other academic disciplines at NIU such as philosophy and music.

Gerontology is the scientific study of aging and problems of the aged. According to recent federal census figures, Illinois alone has more than 1.2 million citizens 65 years old or older.