Throughout our lives, including as we age, each of us deserves a "suit" that is the perfect fit for who we are as an individual.
Imagine going to an elegant fashion house or haberdashery to be fitted for a handmade suit. The process would be slow, deliberate, and deferential as the tailor would take various measurements of your body, offer you a selection of tasteful materials that met your needs and preferences, create a pattern, and meticulously sew the fabric. You would be called back for several fittings and adjustments until the outfit perfectly fitted the contours of your unique body.
It turns out that the ways we grow into aging are as unique as our bodies and identities. It’s a mistake for anyone to believe otherwise, but unfortunately many of us do, especially when we feel comfortable relying on one-size-fits-all ageist stereotypes that prevent us from better understanding the older adult experience in all its idiosyncrasies, complexities, and varieties. For example, we may harbor negative ageist beliefs of the compassionate kind by feeling sorry for the stooped old woman hurrying to cross a busy city street or for the lone old man sitting on a bench, squinting to read his newspaper.
Ironically, some well-meaning people working in aging products and services are inadvertently promoting compassionate ageism by designing and producing age-simulation suits that give decades-younger people the experience of navigating and moving about in older bodies. The goal of these designers is to increase the wearers’ ability to understand the various possible physical challenges of bodies as they age –– decreased hearing, dimmed eyesight, less flexible joints, and weakened muscles. (Or, as a 2019 article on an episode of Boston public radio station WBUR’s Here and Now program asked, “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to age 40 years in a matter of minutes?”) They hope that such understanding will increase wearers’ empathy for what older people go through. I’ll explain in a moment how their approach is ageist, but first it’s important to know more about what these suits are like.
There are many models of age-simulation suits (you can view them on Google Images), but all are constructed to have some basic features that restrict movement, impede balance, and interfere with the basic senses of hearing, sight, and touch.
Take, for example, one suit called AGNES (“Age Gain Now Empathy System”), designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, and another called GERT (“GERonTologic simulator”), developed by the German company Produkt + Projekt Wolfgang Moll. AGNES comes equipped with connective elastic bands from head to torso and from lower back to legs to restrict flexibility and range of motion, while GERT has a weighted vest that curves the spine. Both suits include padding around the elbows and knees, thick gloves, neck braces, bulky overshoes, tinted and/or cloudy goggles, and ear coverings that muffle noise.
Needless to say, younger test subjects find it a surprising and daunting challenge to walk some distance, pick up a coin, use a pen to write their name, read ingredient labels on packaged foods, listen to spoken instructions, and get in and out of a car. For a limited time, they are transformed into a seriously feeble, slow, arthritic, imbalanced, hearing- and sight-impaired population.
You get the picture. And it’s a sad one, which is precisely the designers’ aim. They want to send the message that non–older people should have more patience, understanding, and tolerance for others in their later years who struggle to maintain function, dignity, and independence while going about the business of living.
And in my opinion, having such a goal misses the mark…big time.
For one thing, because age-simulation suits force wearers to experience at least a half-dozen physical challenges simultaneously, they haven’t been especially effective in increasing some test subjects’ empathy or attitudes toward old people. In fact, at times the overkill of those outfits even decrease those feelings by reinforcing the wearers’ already existing fears of getting old. Therefore, products that were meant to evoke more realistic perceptions about aging actually achieve the opposite result.
Let’s do a brief reality check regarding some of those age-simulated conditions.
● Between 2015 and 2017, only 4.6% of Americans ages 65 to 74 and 7.2% of those ages 75 and older were seriously visually impaired.
● As estimated by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, “Nearly 25 percent of those aged 65 to 74, and 50 percent of those who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss.”
● In 2020, “Mobility limitations have been reported as increasingly prevalent in older persons, affecting about 35% of persons aged 70 and the majority of persons over 85 years.”
As for chronic conditions, how many older adults are daily coping with a large number of them at the same time?
According to the Leading Age Long-Term Services and Supports (LTSS) Center at the University of Massachusetts–Boston and the National Council on Aging, in 2018, 50.5% of Americans ages 60 and older report having two or three chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease/dementia, and depression. Moreover, only 12.1% report coping with five or more. If we consider the possibility that many of the people with such conditions are receiving adequate medical care, it’s likely that they are also receiving adequate care regarding the mobility issues addressed by age-simulation suits.
Given all of these statistics, I believe that age-simulation suits skew rather than accurately depict the physical reality of the majority of older adults, a population that generally enjoys greater health than previous later-years generations. The suits imply that the physical challenges they create aren’t really experienced by young or middle-aged adults –– an obviously distorted perception, as there are many twenty-, thirty-, forty-, and fifty-somethings who cope with chronic limitations and pain on a daily basis. (It’s also rather ageist –– and sexist –– to give those suits antiquated female names such as AGNES and GERT, which only reinforce the image of frailty.)
Finally, the idea of applying age simulation solely to a person’s physical ability ties ageism to ableism. What about considering the ways in which older adults with physical challenges are also proactive members of their families and communities, engaged in a variety of satisfying personal, economic and social endeavors? What would it require to build an interior “suit” that could incorporate older adult forms of problem-solving, creativity, flexibility, persistence, resilience, and emotional stability?
Here’s the thing: If we feel sorry for the stooped old woman hurrying to cross a busy city street or for the lone old man sitting on a bench, squinting to read his newspaper, our attitudes may be deceptively limited, as we have no idea about the actual people before us, individuals who have skills, interests, knowledge, and potential that we aren’t able to know. After all, that scurrying woman might be on her way to the elementary school for her weekly volunteer reading session with an at-risk fourth-grader. That solitary newspaper-perusing man might be checking to see if the op-ed he wrote and was accepted by an editor has just been published. Their exteriors may belie far richer interior lives.
An aging “suit” isn’t the entire person. None of us would want to be judged solely by outer appearances. And we certainly wouldn’t want society to determine what those appearances are by measuring and fitting us according to ageist-based assumptions and expectations that are drab, pathetic, comical, outmoded, debilitating, or confining. Throughout our lives, including as we age, each of us deserves a suit that is the perfect fit for who we are as an individual.
It’s society, not us, that needs to be tailored accordingly.