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The Importance of the Latest Old Age Suit

It was way back in 2005 that I first read that airplane manufacturer Boeing, using an “age suit,” was researching changes that could make airline travel easier for elders.

The company was probably using a version of AGNES (acronym for the clunky name, Age Gain Now Empathy System) then, invented by the MIT Agelab. Here is a 2010 MIT video explaining AGNES:

When I visited the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan, in 2011, I learned that auto manufacturers were using what they call a “Third Age Suit” to find ways to make their cars easier for elders to use. Here's my photo of the age suit they were then using:

Age Suit

While I was in Dearborn, I had a chance to test drive a car with what was then a new feature, Park Assist," that helps with parallel parking. Some of you may recall the video of me:

The very first comment on that post confirmed the usefulness of the feature (which is now standard on many cars). Kenju wrote

”WOW!! I am a good parallel parker as well, but since I can't turn my head easily now either - that would be a great feature to have!!”

A lot of elders have that head-turning problem and now, only five years later, self-parallel parking is commonplace in new autos, proving once again that improvements initially meant for old people work for everyone. Always.

So how, I wondered recently, do people without old-age limitations yet respond to wearing these age suits.

Here's a video from last year that shows a reporter with the Winipeg Free Press trying out what he calls a “senior suit” while a local Ford representative explains some the auto's innovations that have come along since I test-parked that car in Dearborn:

And in this exellent 2014 video from the Guardian, a young reporter named Josh Halliday

”...tries out an age simulation suit designed to help healthcare professionals experience and empathise with conditions associated with elderly people. Sheelagh Mealing, director of the Institute of Vocational Learning at South Bank University, explains how the suit is used as a tool for improving healthcare.”

As you may know, the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held its 16th annual gathering last week in Las Vegas where companies showed off all their latest technology inventions.

In many of the tech journalists' top ten and best-of-show lists was the Genworth R70i Exoskeleton ageing simulator. It was apparent, in more than a few of their reports, that using it for a few minutes changed minds about old people's world.

Let me quote one such at a bit of length because it is so encouraging. From Drew Prindle of Digital Trends:

”Of all the wild and crazy technologies we came across on the show floor this year, there was one in particular that stood out — not because it was revolutionary or game-changing, but because it changed our perspective on the world.

“The R70i, as it’s called, is an exoskeleton, but unlike most exoskeletons, it doesn’t make you stronger or faster. Instead, it actually makes you weaker and slower. It’s designed to make you feel like a crotchety old person.

“To do this, the suit leverages a myriad of different technologies. The motorized frame restricts your movements to simulate arthritis and muscle loss, while a special augmented reality headset induces things like hearing loss, tinnitus, and even the tunnel vision that comes with glaucoma.

“Individually, these technological tricks are disorienting, but when you experience all of them at once, it’s downright debilitating — and that’s the whole point. The R70i can’t make you stronger or faster, but it can provide the wearer with empathy and understanding for senior citizens and the challenges they face — and that’s pretty damn incredible.

“Can you think of any other technology that makes its users more empathetic? Neither can we.”

And that, of course - in addition to helping caregivers and the young people who are designing future cars, homes, stores and cities understand how the burgeoning number of elders interact with the world around them - is the point.

Here is a video from Genworth Financial (which sells long-term care insurance) with Bran Ferren co-founder of Applied Minds LLC, the company that built this latest high tech age similulator for Genworth:

As Mr. Ferren told the Wall Street Journal at CES,

“'I would like a new dialogue on aging,' said Bran Ferren, a former Disney Imagineer and president of R&D who co-founded Applied Minds. 'You can intellectualize these things all day long, but when it becomes an emotional first-person experience, it is very different.'”



Mr. Ferren expressed one of my soap box sermons.."when it becomes an emotional first-person experience, it is very different."

Thanks Ronni for covering this subject. Hubby and I are car people, always watching what is coming out. We recently traded for a 2015 Buick. It has many safety features our 2011 didn't. We think it will help Mr. Bruce (age 80) drive a few more years. It doesn't park itself, one feature he wanted. He really wants a self driving car.

Gee, I can talk cars all day.

I'm in agreement with Brian Ferren and Linda C. Regardless of the topic, when it becomes mixed up with our emotions, the intellectualizing does little to help and something more real and personal is needed. It's very encouraging to read things like this showing that real people are working on ways to understand those feelings and frustrations and to provide real help.

That being said, however, I wouldn't mind some breaking news that there's something that WILL make me stronger, faster and reverse some of the cognitive, visual and other sensory changes the past few decade has visited upon me.

In addition to all the thought the Ford Motor Company has put into designing their cars to assist elder motorists to drive longer and safer, I would like to tell you my experience with Ford when my husband was 76 years old and had to have his right leg amputated because of complications of Diabetes.

Roy was a guy who loved to drive and always had a Ford. When he lost his "Driving leg" he was very depressed because he assumed he would never drive again and he still felt young and capable, which he was.

On a chance, I called the main number for the Ford Motor Company in Michigan and told them Roy's situation. The representative said, "Let me connect you to out Motorist Mobility Dept." A very nice young woman came on and asked exactly what my husband's disability was and I told her about him losing his right leg. She told me that Ford had an apparatus that when installed in his car would allow him to drive with his left foot. I was amazed, and immediately asked how I could get this installed.

She sent us to a local company that did all sorts of conversions for disabled motorists (Vans and such) and they installed a plate under the brake and gas pedals that had slots in it. Into the slots you fitted a bar that when pushed by your left foot ,pushed the gas pedal down. So, Roy was back in the driver's seat again, thanks to this innovation by Ford. And the best part was, the $750.00 cost of this was paid by Ford.

Another great feature of this system was that if we were on a trip and it was my turn to drive, all I had to do was remove the bar from the slots in the plate and the car was back to normal again! Ford thought of everything.

Unfortunately, Roy passed away in 2013 . I am now 87 and still drive every day and I love my Ford Escape... It has all the features mentioned in the film regarding rear camera and side view mirror innovations, plus keyless entry and pushbutton start. All the things I need to safely get me where I am going.

My 4 year old Forester brought innumerable improvements over the 16 year old Mazda coupe I drove before. Yet even in these last four years there have been more improvements that I wish I had. I'm thinking particularly of some of the braking systems that will stop the car automatically if it senses an obstruction ahead. I'm still a good driver, I think, with no notable problems other than night vision (I don't drive at night), but it seems only logical to assume my reaction time is slowing and that anything that helps that could be potentially life-saving. Don't get me started on self-driving cars, however. I'm a long way from being convinced about those.

Excellent update. Empathy for aging is something we should be teaching from an early age. It's a game changer as far as perception, but we need to also emphasize that these impairments do not necessarily correlate with a reduction in our mental abilities. We still have valuable knowledge and experiences to contribute.

I gave up driving. Not because I had to, but because I felt that I could no longer operate a motor vehicle safely given my physical disabilities. And, while it is true that I could pass any drivers test and can still drive better than 90% of the people on the road, I did not feel safe doing so.
My eye site, while legally acceptable, is not the way I think drivers should see things. My peripheral vision sucks and I have trouble reading traffic signs from a distance, even with glasses.
In addition I am deaf in one ear (not correctable) and, while perfect hearing is not a requirement to drive, I think one ought to have all of their faculties together before they get behind the wheel.
It's great that auto manufacturers want to make it easier for older drivers, but in a way, I think that they are leading people in to a false sense of security at a time when people should be exploring alternate means of transportation.

I wish they could use these suits to teach in high school they way they use bags of flour as babies to teach kids about how having an infant really is. They'd understand better other young people with disabilities as well as their elder folks.

Great post Ronni, thank you.

Bruce Cooper: I appreciate your comments.

I also quite driving because I no longer thought I was a safe driver. My reflexes are very slow, plus numerous other stuff.

Interesting post with positive implications for future elders. I drive a 2000 Suzuki SUV with standard stick shift. Due to a shoulder problem, I'd like to upgrade to a newer vehicle (although not brand-new because of the huge depreciation factor). However, I suspect that I'm like quite a few other retirees. A relatively new car with additional safety and convenience features simply isn't in our budget! For me, being able to drive locally is important to living independently, so if/when I get to the point that I can no longer drive the car I have, I'll deal with it then. Think positive: the older I am at that point, the fewer years our money will need to last.

Nancy, I love your post.


Mister GPS and I live five minutes from a bus stop that can take us downtown.

I love my satellite music in my car, and often park by the lake just to eat my lunch and watch the water.

But, when the time comes to give up driving, we will look into electric bikes. That is the plan. E bikes and bus it.

But that also means living walking distance to our usual haunts.

Therein lies the choices.

I agree with Bruce Cooper about the need to have all your faculties operating when you drive. I wouldn't dream of getting out in freeway traffic, but I feel comfortable driving designated routes through lightly trafficked and very familiar city streets to get to my grocery store or the medical centers or other destinations to which I most frequently go. Since I never had a good sense of direction I'm not even tempted to go into unfamiliar territory. I think that we, as elders, are usually smart enough to limit ourselves to what we know we are capable of doing---although I know there are stubborn exceptions who need strong guidance from outside sources. Like Elizabeth Rogers, I drive a stick shift (a beautifully behaved 28 year old Toyota) and wouldn't think of buying a new car unless this one just quits completely. I think the shifting keeps me focussed and improves my driving. And, though some members of my family have told me I need GPS, I'm pretty sure it would only be one more distraction and I would rather live with the limited range.

Wow. Loved it all. Thank goodness my parking skills were so good back in the day...I don't have those problems.
The aging suits are great. All care givers should be required to try them at least once. GREAT BLOG

This is so heartening to me as my aggressive arthritis continues to spread. While I am doing better after a left knee replacement in September, the right knee also needs one. And now my hips are bothering me.

One of the hardest (and most frequent) things to do is get in and out of a car! I have a Honda minivan in Oregon but still have his 2007 Acura MDX here in Maui. It is TOO big and I almost need a step stool to get in.

Can't wait to hear which smaller vehicle is designed with oldsters in mind!

GREAT post!

The empathy suits are a good thing to help younger folks design autos, etc. But I wonder if Ford Motor Co and others ever also consult a variety of elders who could authoritatively evaluate and suggest improvements.

I was waiting for the guy in Ford's suit to try to fasten his seat belt. Now that's a difficult reach for me and then it cuts me in the neck. But the cars I drive aren't late models, so hopefully that's fixed now.

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