A simulation suit gave me an early taste of what old age feels like

    28 January 2016

    I have had tough days at work, but this is something else. A metal sheet across my back forces me into a permanent hunch. Tight elastic cramps my hands and makes it hard to grip everyday objects. Weights around my wrists and ankles slow my movement to a crawl. My hearing is muffled by earplugs and, worst of all, goggles narrow and cloud my field of vision, making me all but oblivious to my immediate surroundings.

    Over the past 12 months, my company Sense Worldwide has been working with a client to develop new care products for people in their 70s, 80s and beyond. Thankfully, we have had a secret weapon: our age simulation suit. The suit allows anyone to experience the physical impairments of old age. It has profoundly informed our understanding of these impairments and our empathy for those having to deal with them.

    We ran an experiment to put the suit through its paces. We hired a flat across town in which we could live out an authentic ‘day in the life’ of an older person. Wearing our suit, we’d do all the things we would normally do — make meals, do chores, send emails — so that we could assess the differences for ourselves. I was one of those chosen to wear the suit.

    For half an hour or so, as I became accustomed to my new limitations, wearing the suit was quite fun. But when my colleagues said their goodbyes and I was left to get on with my day, I quickly began to feel locked inside my own body. The simplest tasks suddenly became daunting and complex. Making a cup of tea, for example, was no longer one task but several: pick up the kettle, walk over to the sink, turn on the tap, fill the kettle with water…

    After just a few hours, I was struck by how tired I was, and how difficult daily life had become. When everything takes so much effort, doing the bare minimum can seem like the best option — so why cook up a square meal when there are some crisps in the cupboard? Why bother cleaning up a spillage when you can’t see it anyway? Being so bold as to take a stroll outside felt like mission impossible. I wasn’t convinced I’d even make it down the stairs.

    And then there are the psychological impacts. Over the course of one day, my world shrank beyond recognition — I can only imagine how, day in day out, this would damage even the most optimistic person’s sense of purpose and self-esteem. In such an isolating scenario, it’s hard to overstate the critical importance of social connection. The moments when my colleagues checked in to see how I was getting on were the undisputed highlights of my day (for a start, they could locate the keys I had dropped earlier).

    Extending quality of life deeper into old age is a cause that has implications for us all. There are reasons to be hopeful — designers today are operating in an era rich in possibilities. From augmented reality to the Internet of Things, powerful technologies are coming of age that have the potential to make a huge difference to the lives of an ageing population. The most successful solutions will harness this technology and, above all, they will be inspired by empathy.