As the Fall 2019 semester began, a team of UC Berkeley Fung Fellowship students started the quest to employ human-centered design to address the pain point of getting dressed as an older adult with mobility challenges. The four students, dubbed “Team Adapt,” worked within Elder Care Alliance and several of their communities doing research and in-person customer testing for adaptive apparel specifically for the aging population. Their project set out to find ways to modify their current clothing to be easier to put on and take off.

But, March 2020 rolled around, and so did COVID-19. With the senior population most at-risk to this virus, which was rapidly spreading across the world, visiting our senior living communities was no longer an option for Team Adapt.

“The whole point of us joining the Fellowship was to serve public health issues, and the urgency of the situation honestly motivated us to pivot,” Team Adapt member Romina Mazooji said.

Forced with a critical decision, Team Adapt did just that, adapted to the new situation. They hit the brakes and switched gears on their project, taking on a critical issue facing the industry– personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Rather suddenly, I needed them to shift focus,” Elder Care Alliance Vice President of Bussiness Development & Strategy Rosemary Jordan said. “I asked them to develop protocols and recommendations for PPE sourcing.”

Their project would no longer center on aging adults and adaptive apparel, but rather those healthcare workers, caregivers, and volunteers who work directly with those they were first looking to serve. Their new project quickly came to life.

“Our pivot happened in two phases: first with the phase of transitioning to PPE, then thinking about what element of PPE we were going to tackle,” Team Adapt member Josie Lee said. “For a while, we were set on doing face masks since that seemed like it was most in need, but things were changing very rapidly every day with the pandemic.”

Instead of masks, face shields, or shoe covers, a non-surgical PPE gown inventory for ECA’s employees would become their new focus. Senior living facilities are receiving less help from the state and federal government than hospitals when it comes to PPE supplies, which puts many care workers and residents under high risk for spreading and contracting COVID-19.

“The thing that was hardest to find on the open market, and was more expensive and arguably equally important to safety as a mask, gowns were the ideal focus area,” Jordan said.

The new project would require the help of the local community, much different from their previous adaptive clothing plan. Volunteers all over the San Francisco Bay Area were sourced to piece together gowns.

“By the time they got to the stage of being able to imagine a scaled DIY sewing effort, cloth masks were already plentiful. Even now, it’s not unusual for us to receive 25-50 cloth mask donations each week,” Jordan said.

In the end, volunteers from the North Bay to the East Bay whom have no ties to the organization sewed 200 gowns for Elder Care Alliance. Those gowns will be worn by staff caring for our residents across the state at our five communities.

“We just reached out everywhere — to the Fung staff, our LinkedIn networks, Bay Area cultural groups,” Team Adapt member Yoyo Ko said. “We tried to involve anyone and everyone we could think of. I remember there was even a local sewing newsletter committee that we reached.”

“It was heartwarming to see all these volunteers coming in and picking up the kits we made. They were so happy to volunteer all their time. It made me happy to see that there are still people out there that actually care about others they don’t even know,” Mazooji said.

As quickly as the new project came to life, it wasn’t without its challenges. Needing to follow CDC and other guidelines to ensure safety, they had to remove themselves from a majority of the design processes. Rather than just designing something from scratch and testing it themselves, they had to do a lot more research on the public health field beforehand. Along with that, they had to manage the larger logistical side of the project.

“We prototyped our structure of production and distribution. Our primary research was finding the best tracking tool to manage the people that cut fabric, sewed fabric, and those who dropped off fabric. We were lucky to find such a great gown design online, but there was also the process of testing different distribution methods,” Lee said.

But the end goal of the project isn’t just to benefit Elder Care Alliance communities and our staff members. The goal is ongoing and far-reaching for this group.

“Our project is built towards showing how to replicate the gown production process,” Fung Fellowship student Shirley Jiang said. “It shows how we tracked fabric cutting, production, and coordinated communications. It’s a framework that can be adjusted to individual needs. It was meant to be something that can be replicated by anybody.”

The aim for Team Adapt is to impact senior living communities beyond the Bay Area by creating a PPE Plan and Playbook that others at-risk could easily adapt and apply to their COVID-19 response.
To sum up their shifted project in one word- collaboration.

“One thing that was so beautiful was seeing how many different needs there are in a movement. It sounds cliché, but I’m finding quotations about everyone “finding their lane” to contribute to a project or movement with their own skillset. Our project incorporated so many different needs. There were the sewers, those who shared with their networks, those who offered to drive fabric, Yoyo managing finances, fabric cutters, Shirley made our intuitive spreadsheet; there were so many ways to add value to the project,” Lee said.

There is no doubting, their project brought many people together, and for a bigger purpose– keeping our elders safe. We thank the UC Berkeley Fung Fellowship Team Adapt students; Josie Lee, Yoyo Ko, Romina Mazooji, and Shirley Jiang for their work and dedication. You made an impact and a difference.

If you’d like to contribute to the ongoing efforts to support ECA’s team with PPE, please consider making a donation at www.givingeca.org.

*Team Adapt interview conducted by Alison Huh