Medical Favoritism
The Joys of Blogging

The Importance of Simulated Aging

category_bug_journal2.gif 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.

On Sunday, The New York Times published a major feature on this commercial development describing a sensitivity training program from Xtreme Aging, created by Dr. Vicki Rosebrook.

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.]


Years ago, I went to a museum exhibit which showed adult visitors what a child's world is like. The furniture was properly proportioned to climb up upon, the dogs were appropriately enormous, the scissors difficult to manipulate, etc. After reading this post, I thought it might be interesting to make up such an exhibit without having to put on all the equipment. The rugs could be slippery, food taste bland (just serve them real institutionalized food), a bag of grocery's extra heavy... wouldn't it be fun if all age groups could have this experience?

Thoughts at almost dawn. 3 constants in my life, my books, gardening and my computer. What would I do without them? Reading this information and comment made me more aware this early morning of some differences that are taking place. Groceries heavier, some hearing loss, eyesight not as sharp, food taste have changed, after lunch my energy level plummets. The list goes on. After making me more aware of what aging is doing I realize I do not want to FALL.

The level of denial that Dr. Rosebrook talks about just blows my mind. Am I the only one aging?!?!? And NOTICING that I’m aging?!?!? How can anyone possibly be in denial about aging?!? Man-oh-man, if you could just take all the energy that goes into that denial and put it into doing something positive to help the situation – just imagine!

I love your comment “the assumption seems to be that the mind fails too”. It’s such a convenient thought. When my body gets really old, my brain will be mush, so I won’t even notice. Right. And of course that COULD happen. Or not.

I think of my grandmother. She just turned 99 and is in remarkably good health (she only takes a water pill every day). But her memory is shot. She’s in a nursing home but mostly wanders about looking for her room. Even when her photo is on the door of her room, she can’t find it. She’ll climb into someone else’s bed for a nap, thinking it’s hers. But the rest of her mind is fine and she is painfully aware that she’s in the part of the nursing home where they put the ‘crazy’ people. It’s just awful and she hates it. It scares her. She blossoms whenever my mom takes her out of there for the afternoon or whatever.

I don’t know if she’s lucky or unlucky that her mind DOES work and she’s in good health physically.

I think one of the cruelest things is when assisted or otherwise senior housing does not allow pets. We have an apartment complex here that does not allow pets. I'd live in a bus before I would part with my cats. Somewhere I read that any housing that accepted federal money could not discriminate against pets but for the life of me I can't find it again.
My friend running the low cost spay neuter clinic here has for a long time dreamed of building a hospice where people would be able to keep their pets with them while they are ill.

Only recently have I begun to think that someday I won't be able to take a new cat when one of my old ones dies. In the past I thought I always would want a pet in my home but now it worries me about what would happen when I die or if I get to a point I need to go into assisted living or a nursing home. Figuring out what would happen to my babies would indeed be the hardest part for me, but living without a pet would be hard also. I seriously have thought about fixing a will to arrange for their care even now but am not sure what I could do about it. It's not like living out their lives in kennels would be good and my kids have their pets. I can now understand why little old ladies leave it all to the pet until the pet dies, arranging for a caretaker to come live in the house!

Or ...

They could hire designers in their fifties, sixties, seventies.

I found this blog post so interesting that I wish I had more time to mull it over. Thanks for the post.

Sometimes you lose your possessions at the hands of people who love you and mean only the very best for you.

This is a lesson I learned at my mother's expense. I wrote about what happened in CaregivingBlog.

There are over 36 million Americans age 65 and older, and the number is growing daily. The requirement to understand the concerns of the aging can only increase.

You can call it ageism, youth-besotted culture, or what you want, but this nation has turned a blind eye on its older citizens in too many ways for far too long. It's encouraging to see that some are beginning to wake up and notice that over 10 percent of the population needs specific products and services that take care of their needs.

Unfortunately, I don't see this awakening as being entirely altruistic. I think manufacturers and service providers are beginning to realize the size of the elder market, and see an opportunity to sell new products to a "new" market.

However, I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Any way it happens, it's good.

What I hate the most is the thought of possibly having to share a room with another person. I fully intend to be a burden on my children. They can pass me back and forth if they want to, but I'm not willing to go to a nursing home, or assisted living facility.

We need to follow that old Indian adage about walking in another's moccasins before we judge them.

I never thought the simple act of walking would change. When we are young I fear most of us think that we will be different when we grow old. Or we don't think at all. ;)

My parents more or less told me that it would be my obligation to take care of them if that became an issue (other than living here on the farm with their mobile, it did not).

My husband's parents took it that they would take care of their own needs including make the decision when they needed more care. They did exactly that.

So I have seen both viewpoints. For me the last thing I'd want to do is have my children feeling obligated to take care of me. I hope to make my own plans. I would not like a nursing home but we do what we have to do. Hospitals are no fun either.

The one thing I know for sure is I will not use the fact that I had children to avoid a nursing home. They are repaying anything I did for them by living good lives and as they take care of their own children.

One thing I have thought about is I don't want them feeling guilty if I have to go into managed care. I will live independently as long as I can, hope to go fast when the time comes, but it will be my responsibility to arrange for my care if someday I cannot take care of myself; and it won't involve pressuring or guilting my children into doing it. It would be nice if they visited and made sure the care was good. That's the one thing we all need is someone to keep an eye on that there is no elder abuse but that could be a long-time friend also.

Thanks for this post. I'm in my early thirties and am fascinated with the process of aging. (meant to comment here)

I like all your posts, but this one for some reason really hit me. Maybe it was reading about your fear of losing Oliver. Maybe it was this line that I couldn't agree with more: "Our culture accommodates children almost to a fault." I'm sure the impact was made stronger by watching the video of your presentation at Gnomedex 2007. I think because my husband and I have only minimal financial preparation in place it scratched my fear zone that is always under the surface of my daily 57-year-old, childless existence. But most of all, having just taken the two dogs out in the summer night for a final potty call, and having beautiful Feather kitty stretched out on my writing desk beside me at the computer, I had the saddest moment in a long time. "This too shall pass" should be a mantra of consolation, not a warning of future doom.
AARP better get on the stick or I'll cancel my brand new membership...

You've raised some excellent issues here that we all should think about. Am glad the sensitivity training techniques that have been used for many years with the various rehabilitation therapies and various better quality nursing level training programs are being described for people of all ages to be aware of and try.

I think your introduction of those methods at Gnomedex 2007 was laudable and hopefully successful. (I watched the live streaming video and wrote about it.) Have to start somewhere and you may have caused attendees to give functional changes consideration, whether due to aging or for other reasons.

The Xtreme Aging program is an excellent expansion to such sensitivity training and could be incorporated into so many group settings -- an obvious eye-opener. Working a lot with an older population as I do, I've had an opportunity to see the real version of what you describe, experienced it with my mother and thought about the aspects for myself. Probably we all know what we want to do, but the unknowns of health status will govern our choices.

We tend to assume we'll keep our normal daily living skills, or some of them, all our lives. Some of us will. Since we're generally aware of the importance of walking, various sensory functions, we adopt various means to maximize or at least maintain these abilities. Many functions, such as eating and communication, we also take for granted. They are equally deserving of our efforts to adjust to some of the aging changes affecting them. The structures and muscles reponsible for these functions may not be immune to aging affects either. Usually, little or no attention is paid to them until someone is ill with a medical problem, develops a disease or has an injury.

I strongly agree with Rain and have made every effort to try and keep my children from being responsible for me. I also know not everyone regards this view in the same way.

If you were given a choice, would you give up your visibility voluntarily? Would you trade your cat or computer for the ability to be seen and recognized by others?
Probably not but for most of us who have past retirement age, we don't have a choice in the matter. "Every day, in every way, I get a little bit..." - more invisible and not "better".

Yes, I know that many of us fantasized about being invisible when we were very young but, like they say " be careful what you wish for"

I could write more words than anyone would want to read on this topic. We discovered with our parents, there is no easy answer and now we are approaching a time when we need to be thinking about our own future. Ronni, don't get discouraged. It's writers like you who are making a difference for the future of aging.

"I didn't think." How often can we say that because we tend to assume so much in our daily lives?

Puppies, kittens, babies are cute. They sing of new life, new beginnings and hope.

The message about aging is so different. It is all about loss and loss and more loss.

Why? Because, I think, our society is so afraid of it. The society has not taken the time to really look at the aging process and so it remains unknown - but not unknowable.

I work with young children and my life is also surrounded by elders - 90 year old father, 86 year old mother and a husband with moderate Alzheimer's. I often hear the remark that it must be such a challenge to work with 12 year olds , then 5 year olds then adults. Not really. There is a commonality - each person needs to be acknowledged, values and engaged. That includes me as the teacher or caregiver. I need to be heard and valued. Everyone does, and we often make such a mess of it. (We screw it up all aound, for people, animals, the earth.)

Rather than telling, we need to be prepared to ask. We also need to be prepared to give, and not just on our own terms first. We need to lessen our fears and it is possible.

I will, most likely, outlive my parents and my dearest husband. They depend on me to see them through the changes and experiences of today and what is ahead of them. I will be there for them as they have been for me. I have had to create my own support system, because I cannot do it alone. I do the same for the children I teach.

When it comes my time to be more dependent on others for day to day living, I will have done all that I can to prepare for it and then take what comes. I have learned to ask, that my deep sense of independence has limits. We are a part of the whole, not islands. We all need sensitivity training for the stages of human life, and we don't get it unless we are in the middle of it, then you can't call it training, it is the line of fire. Awareness and compassion don't create wealth so our society doesn't consider it.

My father's most often repeated word of wisdom - "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst and take what comes."


Thank you for this blog. I have only commented twice, but read often.

I went over to your blog Pete and it and the comments speak so well to the 'guilt' that follows us into our own aging. Do we ever recover from feeling we should have done better or different? My mother, bless her, shortly before she died, said that she didn't know what she'd do without me. It made everything I did seem worthwhile. However, I don't have children. The future is a big frightening question mark.

The comments to this entry are closed.