Several years ago, I wrote about a grammar school program in which children were given glasses with yellowed lenses, gloves, and rice to put in their shoes to simulate what it’s like to do everyday tasks when you get old.
Last year, I wrote about Boeing outfitting their engineers in “old people suits” and flying them around for an hour or two to simulate what it’s like to navigate airline travel when you’re old. (There is video here, but I couldn’t get it to load.)
And just about this time last August, even I attempted (poorly) to use some of the same techniques to show the attendees at Gnomedex 2007, how difficult it can be for some elders to use computers and software. (The experiment is at the beginning of video.)
It’s been a long time coming, but it is great, good news that more companies are now using all these methods and more to simulate old age so that designers of cars, computers, nursing homes, airplanes and even advertisers can better understand what old people are up against in a world generally arranged only for healthy, midlife adults.
Using, among other techniques, distorting glasses to blur vision, cotton balls in ears and noses to dampen hearing and the sense of smell, and latex gloves with bandages at the knuckles to reduce dexterity, 15 workers at the Westminster Thurber Retirement Community in Columbus, Ohio, found out a little about what their residents' lives are like every day.
“The result was a domestic obstacle course.
“Some tasks were difficult, some impossible. The type in the telephone book appeared microscopic, the buttons on the cellphone even smaller.
“And forget about refolding a map or handling coins from a zippered wallet.”
Even though I am familiar with some aspects of age sensitivity training, I’d never heard of the part of the Xtreme Aging program about what it’s like for an old person to prepare to move from their home to assisted living of some kind:
“To approximate the state of people entering a nursing home, [Rosebrook] asked each participant to write down five favorite possessions, five cherished freedoms and three loved ones on Post-it notes. Then one-by-one she asked members of the group to part with a possession, a freedom or a person: a car here, a husband there, freedom of travel next – until all that anyone had left were two possessions.
“’You guys just aged to the point of going into a nursing home,’ she said, as participants made the last hard choice, invariably giving up contact with their children. ‘What did you give up? All your loved ones. All your privileges. And at most nursing homes you only get to bring two possessions…
“…this is what we do to people. If we’ve taken everything away, what have we done to the elders in society?’”
Reading this, I kept thinking about my cat, Oliver, my books and my laptop (with internet access) – the three constants in my daily life. Imagining my own move, I wanted to weep. Your list might be different, but losing those items would leave you feeling equally bereft.
So much lip service is paid to “active aging” and keeping our minds limber as we get older. But those active aging proponents address only the physical aspects of activity and when an elder’s body fails to point of needing full-time care, the assumption seems to be that the mind fails too. (Change is slowly coming to nursing homes and I’ll be writing about that soon.)
Meanwhile, programs like Xtreme Aging’s physical age simulation are important and encouraging. Even if the reason is mostly to increase revenue, the efforts of airlines, car manufacturers and other companies and industries to accommodate the needs of elders are admirable and welcome. But it has not penetrated far enough into the culture. Dr. Rosebrook
“…said she hoped to provide more training in the corporate world: at hotels or theme parks, at department stores or customer service centers. ‘But there’s a lot of denial out there,’ Dr. Rosebrook said. ‘They don’t see a need. We can’t even get AARP.’”
The last obstacle she lists makes sense when every new issue of AARP Bulletin and magazine seems to address midlife people more than elders. But it takes only a moment of thought to see how much needs to be done and that it is the right thing to do.
Our culture accommodates children almost to a fault. We provide and even require car safety seats, bicycle helmets, prescribed numbers of chaperons on school outings, special surfaces for playgrounds, fire retardant pajamas. We do this because children are vulnerable and need us to watch over them while also giving them the necessary freedom to develop.
But at the other end of life, we have had little concern for people who are just as vulnerable, in different ways, as children. Dr. Rosebrook is doing good work and we need some more like her.
[Hat tip to the dozen or so readers who sent me a link to this New York Times story.]
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Brenton “Sandy” Dickson tackles a foreign language in L’Immersione Italiano.]