ELDER MUSIC: 1929
Crabby Old Lady, Credit Scores and a John Oliver Treat

Old Age Suit Update: I Stand Corrected

Every now and then you run across something so obvious and so true that there is nothing to do but slap your forehead and immediately rearrange your beliefs on the subject. Let me explain.

As I told you in a January post, I first encountered what many people call “old age suits” ten years ago and I got up my first close and personal encounter with one in 2011, at the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan:

Age Suit

The idea of them, of course, is to give young people, particularly those who design homes, automobiles, all kinds of appliances and even cities themselves a sense of how old bodies work differently from their own and, therefore, help them create a world which is easier for old people to navigate.

The point of that January post was to show you the newest, most up-to-date age suit that had been presented the prior week at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show.

That suit, officially dubbed the R70i, was created by a former Disney imagineer named Bran Ferren for Genworth Financial (which sells long-term care insurance). You can see Ferren's video of the age suit at the Consumer Electronics show at that link above. Scroll down to the bottom of the story.

For all these ten years since I first heard of age suits, I have believed they are an excellent innovation to help remake a world that can accommodate the increasing millions of old people who will need all the help they can get in coming years.

And I still think so but now with some important reservations.

A week ago, The New York Times published a story about the Genworth Financial R70i written by a youngish reporter, Andy Newman, who begins his story,

”What could it possibly be like to be old? The stooped shuffle, the halting speech, the dimming senses.”

He answers his own question a scant two sentences later after donning the age suit: “It is not very pleasant.”

Mr. Newman walks his readers through the debilities the suit mimics: macular degeneration, tinnitus along with muffled and distorted hearing, aphasia and with the 40-pound weight of the suit, creaky joints and weakened muscles. After Newman has spent some time on a treadmill, Ferrin tells him,

“'So far you’ve walked about a half block and your heart is beating at 130 beats a minute,' he said.

“There are,” Newman continues, “entire realms of wretchedness attendant upon owning and operating an 85-year-old body that the Genworth Aging Experience exhibit does not even touch upon.

“Comprehensive sagging, internal and external. Pain in places you did not know could hurt. Difficulty urinating. Difficulty not urinating. Watching your friends die off. Watching yourself become irrelevant, an object of pity or puzzlement if acknowledged at all.”

Sounds awful, doesn't it. Much more awful than most people I know would indicate, even those in their 80s and 90s. There is a reason for that, a brilliantly obvious one I found in a letter to the editor. It is short so here it is in its entirety:

”When I began as a gerontological social worker 47 years ago, simulation exercises were all the rage. We were given glasses with lenses smeared in Vaseline, cotton balls to stuff in our ears, weights to tie on our ankles.

“Thus adorned, we were led through our paces: brushing our teeth, making beds, washing dishes and dusting the furniture. This, we were told, is what it feels like to be old.

“Now that I have become one of 'them,' I could not disagree more. It is rare that an old person will have every disability or that those she does have will be of equal intensity. There is an ebb and flow to physical functioning in late life just as there is in earlier years.

“And we are more than the sum of our bodily woes; we are individuals who meet the challenges of old age in individual ways. We do not live to take care of ourselves and our habitats; we do these things in order to do other things that give our lives meaning.”

Yes! And thank you to the letter writer, Ann Burack-Weiss of New York, who is the author of The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman's Life, a book that has been sitting in (one of) my “to read” piles since it was published last fall and which I have now moved to the top.

Lately I have come to believe (and you will undoubtedly be hearing more about in these pages) that both serious research and general discussion of old people's lives should not be undertaken without the presence of at least one old person as an adviser.

What younger people cannot know and no age suit can tell them is exactly what Ms. Burack-Weiss expresses in her last paragraph, worth repeating here:

“And we are more than the sum of our bodily woes; we are individuals who meet the challenges of old age in individual ways. We do not live to take care of ourselves and our habitats; we do these things in order to do other things that give our lives meaning.”

It is that kind of knowledge that, to me, make it imperative for old people to become consultants in the creation of an age-friendly world

I still believe there is an important place for old age suits but not as a stand-alone aid. Old age, as is true of just about anything worth knowing about, is more complicated than a robotic simulation of physical decline.

Comments

We do just address the physical issues with these suits and we do not address the fear or permanent changes that we must face. Let a young person wear the suit for a year and he/she might get a better perspective. Let them be ignored or pitied or treated with condescension and that might make them have a more realistic experience.

ahhh yes ----I too turned to the phrase in your piece---

Watching yourself become irrelevant, an object of pity or puzzlement if acknowledged at all.” -

This is the part that bothers or worries me --

I saw the article in the Times, looked up the book, ordered it and read it this weekend. I highly recommend it, both for the author's many years of working with old people but for the attitudes and spirit of the well-known woman writers she describes and quotes from -- the "lionesses.
Carol

Your repetition of the author's succinct expression of the importance of actually living life, whatever that may look like, not just maintaining existence to avoid the alternative, should be the crux of many.

“And we are more than the sum of our bodily woes; we are individuals who meet the challenges of old age in individual ways. We do not live to take care of ourselves and our habitats; we do these things in order to do other things that give our lives meaning.”

So many people seem to be unable to find that meaning, and are not reaching the challenges of old age beyond retirement, because they are being cut down before ever getting there.

Yesterday I read an extremely heart-wrenching piece re-shared on FB by a local journalist who writes for our daily newspaper. It was about a woman, in her mid-50's, who had succumbed to a phenomenon that is increasingly taking people's lives way too soon and in a miserable way. This is a phenomenon that has been generating a lot of discussion and press, and is often being considered a form of suicide, through drugs or alcohol, or both.

Yesterday's article focused on the fact that it now appears to be occurring disproportionately in women too young for Social Security, but unable to find or hold employment adequate to support themselves. Apparently this is occurring more often among lower middle class women in rural areas in the more central states.. This particular woman was in rural Oklahoma, where she lived in a decrepit trailer. The article says that, on the day that a few friends and family member said good bye and distributed her ashes, "a memorial potluck was hosted at a senior center in a part of the country where fewer people were becoming seniors."

Resilience, at all ages, seems to be the key, wherever it comes from.

With so many mature adults available who could be hired to provide sound advice, it continues to amaze me that companies fail to use this resource when designing products and advertising campaigns. We need a shakeup in business schools. It's about time to teach future CEOs to think about things other than how to reap maximum short-term profits.

I just saw the movie "Doris" (with Sally Fields). Afterwards my friends turned to me for a "that was great" comment. I "hated" the movie. More precisely, I did not like the message. Doris "went for" a much younger man - at least 20 years her junior. I squirmed in my movie seat as I watched her caracter. She was a hoarder, was dressed and coiffed in laughable styles and stalked her "love" interest. Her work mates treated her as irrelevant, an object of puzzlement. . .etc. (as above). What could possibly be entertaining about that? I thought the movie did a disservice to older adults. Is that what entertains the general audience about aging???

The limitation of having just one token older person as an adviser for a design team is that younger people will think, hey, that ticks that checkbox -- done! As the letter writer said, "It is rare that an old person will have every disability or that those she does have will be of equal intensity."

Perhaps, for a better perspective, this blog should be made required reading! The test should make sure they've read all the comments, too. Long-answer open-book essay question: "Who is Darlene and what did you learn from her comments?"

@Gabbygeezer: The root of it goes deeper than that. The education of future CEOs will stop concentrating on maximizing short-term profits -- only when the stock market and CEO compensation system stop rewarding that behaviour and severely punishing anything else.

Been there, Done that. Thanks, Gabboygeezer! 'Back in the day', to get a Stanford MBA meant that we had to take a course in Business Ethics. Best course I ever took. Among Merriam-Webster's synonyms for Ethics are: Principles, values, beliefs, customs. Any and all of which, if properly connected to the 'aging' population's needs - - and desires - - would be an eye-opener to future CEOs and entrepreneurs.
For maximum impact, the professor might request, a week in advance, that each student bring some sort of an electronic photo of one of their less well-off senior relatives. Three might be chosen, projected on a screen, and the class would apply the specifics of various corporate decisions to the financial, physical and 'enjoyment of life' aspects of these relatives. With a continuing implication that, "You're going to get old, too!"

I agree with Cathy J. that resilience is important. However, at some point some older people may ask, "For what (or whom)?" and "Why?" When the pluses and minuses are no longer in some kind of balance for that individual, perhaps "existence" has replaced "living". If I were barely subsisting alone in a decrepit trailer in Oklahoma with no hope of ever improving my situation--and on top of that suffered from debilitating and/or painful physical ailments--I'm not sure resilience would be enough.

I totally agree with Gabby Geezer--and with Sylvia--about the stock market and CEOs. The whole system is corrupt, but I think we already know that. Excellent suggestion by Tim Hay, as well.

Thank You, Ronni, for another insightful post. Thank you for including the wonderful letter from Ann Burack-Weiss. She expresses so eloquently what many of us feel. I loved her line about the "ebb and flow"---sometimes I forget that part when I am at the ebb.

I am not surprised no one thinks of asking an older person to help explain what it feels like. After all all the young know very well that the young know everything important to know. Seems a lot like the not-quite-past practice of many medical researchers who never seem to wonder if medications will affect women differently than men. Some segments of society are routinely ignored, certainly we in the "retirement" age group are among them and the only way the younger ones will think to ask us is if we speak up, loud and long and clear.

Oh, Tim, that is a great suggestion.

***

I met "Mister High Pitch" again today, while having a coffee in a Unowhoo restaurant. MIster HP's scratchy soprano French cuts through the usual din of customers.

He's kind of a cutie in his striped shirt, tan winter scarf, blue windbreaker. He sits with a group of senior men. Regulars, I imagine.

Over time, we began waving to each other across the tables, and later I asked Mister HP in French if he was retired and from what kind of job.

He said he was an accountant in a massive French polyvalent school.

Mister HP was at his regular buddy table again today. He saw me and came over to say bonjour.

He couldn't hear a word I said. He kept pointing to his ears and said his two hearing aids needed batteries. I got right up close to his ear and asked his name. LOudly. He said "Gaetan."

So all this time he's been sitting with that group of men, he's been wearing two hearing aids.

This reminded me of adjustments some of us must make, but we are not all one size fits all.

My ninety something year old mom takes zero medication, wears no hearing aids, uses no walker.

She is fooling all the ageist prognosticators.

I read this in the early morning, but didn't have time to answer. I have been thinking about it all day and don't know how to respond any better now than I did then.

I think the old age suits have a place because they can teach the manufacturers to make things much easier for old people to handle and use. Or the items we use can be made safer and our clothing can be made more comfortable. For example, I am now finding it hard to put on heavy winter robes because they are so difficult for me to put my arms in. I now lay them with the outside down on the bed, sit on the edge of the bed and raise the top of the robe up to put one arm in and maneuver the other arm hole to the other side. I ask myself, why does this have to be so difficult. Sure I can buy fleece robes that are much lighter, but it would be nice to wear the warmer robes without having to struggle. Okay, having written that piece of nonsense I guess I should show you that I really have given this some thought.

The point I was trying to make is that even simple things we did in the past suddenly become unmanageable. So it's up to some young genius who wore the suit and in so doing began to understand what we go through and find a way to make the task easier.

Having said that, I agree that the suit only teaches a segment of what being very old feels like. And maybe it isn't even the most important part because we elders are clever and capable of solving some things ourselves.

But the part of growing very old is the attitude changes that the physical changes bring.
I can't really remember what it felt like to get up in the morning feeling great and enthusiastic. Nor can I remember what it was like to feel really rested and 'raring to go.

There are so many little subtle changes that are gradual in their appearance that we get used to them and only when we remember what it used to be like do they bother us.

It's been alluded to by others, but we all age at different stages and no two people are alike, so it's hard to tell someone what it feels like to be old. I am probably not the best example because I have friends who are still able to travel, go to concerts and plays and enjoy a wonderful evening of dinner with friends followed by a concert. I get tired just thinking about doing that.

So how are we ever going to solve the myriad problems that old age brings to some of us? No strength suit can do that; it can, I hope, just make things a bit easier

You are spot on with this one! Old age (to me) just means a few more different challenges to deal with each day ... "different" in the sense that they are not the same as the ones I faced when I was younger ... no better nor worse.

My mind and my attitudes have shifted around a little bit as I have had more life experiences and learned more, but I am still the same basic person I was when I was 8 or 18 or now nearly 80! I am still very busy being Miki!

Unless your name is Benjamin Button, old age does not happen all at once, like putting on a suit. It creeps up on you slowly beginning in your 30's, each year adding something new to the equation. A twinge in the knee or muscle ache at 35, becomes arthritis and sciatica at 65.
Freckles at 25 become "connect-the-dots" liver spots at 75.
Conversely, if we oldsters were to suddenly get into a suit that made us feel 20 again, what a shock it would be to our systems. Hey, there's an idea. A youth suit.

Bruce, you continue to crack me up.

As the founder of The Radical Age Movement, I also took great exception to the Time's piece for many of the reasons stated here. However, there is something much bigger that irks me. As you say, Glenworth is probably the largest provider of long term insurance. It would be in their interest to "scare" us about our physical futures and make it all seem so dreadful that we all must run out and purchase their insurance. (Which keeps becoming more an more expensive to pay for less and less). My final word is "SHAME ON THEM!"

Another interesting and insightful post, Ronni. Great comments from your readers as well!

I SO agree with Alice's comment "shame on them" re Genworth and long term care insurance. We purchased what we could afford 20+ years ago at fairly reasonable rates. Of course, we were younger then (in our 60s) and still employed. The rates remained fairly steady for quite a while but in the past few years have increased significantly. We can't help but wonder if Genworth's "risk managers" hope we will be unable to afford the premiums and thus be forced to drop our policies BEFORE we need to use them. They would keep all the money we've paid in, of course. We've been able to pay so far, but $5,000/yr. (total) is a lot of money to us now, and I expect another jump this year since I'll be turning 80 in January '17.

Even given the potential economic gain for Genworth, I really, REALLY hope we never have to use these pricey policies! If we do, I hope they'll come through for us. I'm sure Genworth will be on the lookout for some technicality to deny us coverage for whatever condition we may develop. After all, their well-compensated CEO "needs" this year's raise more than we need the insurance we've been paying for.

The young reporter who said, "Watching yourself become irrelevant, an object of pity or puzzlement if acknowledged at all," makes an appalling assumption that everyone who is younger will pity or ignore the elderly. It's quite dehumanizing and I pity the older people in his own family.

His take on old age is not, from my perspective, the norm. Increasingly, families and society are realizing that our wisdom and experience are valuable. That Newman associates age only with physical decay is sad. He is missing out on so much, and not really seeing the elderly as individuals. Not a very good thing for a reporter or a compassionate person.

And while our bodies may decay somewhat, there are many of us who take up new pursuits - from rock climbing to marathons - to slow that progress. I know many people in their 70's who are more fit than their counterparts in their 40's!

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