In response to Wednesday's post about MIT's AGNES suit, I was startled to find this email in my inbox:
”I think people make too much misery out of old age. My eyes are dimming and so are my ears, my steps are slow. My breath is short and my nights long. My husband of 62 years died in Jan.
“Nevertheless I see friends daily, go to weekly workshops, write a newspaper column, just went to NYC with friends and visited family in NJ. I see lots of movies and read the NYTimes and a cascade of books. At 86 I don't expect miracles, but for now I'm having a fine time.”
How lucky that you apparently do not have any major impediments to being as active as you want. That is not true for all old people nor do they bring it on themselves, as you appear to imply. According to the U.S. National Council on Aging,
”...about 80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic disease and 68 percent have at least two. In our survey, nearly one in two seniors reported living with two or more chronic conditions...
”From making it difficult to perform daily tasks such as walking up steps or bathing, to causing significant physical, emotional, and financial strain, these diseases can take an extensive toll, particularly among seniors. What’s more, without proper care, chronic illness can reduce quality of life, and keep seniors from maintaining the level of independence they desire.”
God knows I've said it often enough here over 15 years but one more time seems necessary: we age at entirely different rates. Sometimes a 50-year-old needs full-time care and other times, a 90-year-old is functioning as well as we expect a healthy 50-year-old to do.
My surprise at reading this email wasn't done. Checking the comments on the blog, I saw that about half a dozen dismissed the AGNES suit out of hand:
”I have a strong negative reaction to these types of suits,” wrote James Cotter. “They suggest that ALL older persons experience all of these decrements at one time. They do not reflect the experience of growing older, especially for those who have maintained decent health and mobility.”
Let's stop right there with “...those who have maintained decent health and mobility.” What about the people who haven't? Does anyone here think it is the patient's fault she was diagnosed with MS at age 31? And no, AGNES does not suggest that all old people suffer exactly the same experiences.
”I think these toys have some utility,” wrote Harold, “but they will not provide insight into what it's like to wake up with these limitations permanently installed and likely to become more pronounced and an awareness that this is the best it's ever going to be.”
First, AGNES is not a toy. For well more than a decade, MIT has used the suit to help people design products and services that help elders engage with the world more easily.
As to understanding that limitations are often permanent, we can't ask people to wear the suit for a week or a month or more. But a day will do it quite well in increasing understanding of elders.
Jeanette wrote, ”...what is missing is their learning that there is an interior life - where we can explore as many different worlds as they do - where we can laugh, make love, watch Mick Jagger on a rope bridge - we can read, listen to music and through the magic of technology.”
”...for real understanding of coping with some of the simulated conditions,” wrote Emma J., “I suspect the value may be minimal. The emotional and psychological aspects of coping with chronic pain, limited mobility, vision and hearing deficiencies, dental problems, poverty without realistic hope of eventual relief can be insidious.”
Oh, I'm not so sure about that, Jeanette and Emma J. No one needs any kind of suit to imagine other worlds, to laugh, make love, etc. Young people do those things every day. And I would bet good money that after even an hour or so in the suit, participants begin to see the difficulties you mention, Emma J. We all come to realize that growing old won't always be easy.
No suit can exactly emulate a human being physically, emotionally or any other way. But for many years, AGNES has been educating people who need or want to know what daily life is like for old people. Let's not throw out that baby with the bath water – the AGNES suit is a good tool that has proved its importance and usefulness in hundreds of ways.
As it happens, just a week ago, The New Yorker published a long, online profile of the director of the MIT AgeLab, Joseph Coughlin, written by the estimable Adam Gopnik who tried out the AGNES suit. I will quote his experience with it:
Slowly pulling on the aging suit and then standing up—it looks a bit like one of the spacesuits that the Russian cosmonauts wore—you’re at first conscious merely of a little extra weight, a little loss of feeling, a small encumbrance or two at the extremities.
“Soon, though, it’s actively infuriating. The suit bends you. It slows you. You come to realize what makes it a powerful instrument of emotional empathy: every small task becomes effortful. 'Reach up to the top shelf and pick up that mug,' Coughlin orders, and doing so requires more attention than you expected.
“You reach for the mug instead of just getting it. Your emotional cast, as focused task piles on focused task, becomes one of annoyance; you acquire the same set-mouthed, unhappy, watchful look you see on certain elderly people on the subway.
“The concentration that each act disrupts the flow of life, which you suddenly become aware is the happiness of life, the ceaseless flow of simple action and responses, choices all made simultaneously and mostly without effort. Happiness is absorption, and absorption is the opposite of willful attention.
“The annoyance, after a half hour or so in the suit, tips over into anger: Damn, what’s wrong with the world? (Never: What’s wrong with me?)
“The suit makes us aware not so much of the physical difficulties of old age, which can be manageable, but of the mental state disconcertingly associated with it—the price of age being perpetual aggravation.
“The theme and action and motive of King Lear suddenly become perfectly clear. You become enraged at your youngest daughter’s reticence because you have had to struggle to unroll the map of your kingdom.”
MIT AgeLab has worked with thousands of volunteers of all ages – including old adults even past age 85 - to participate in research and interactive workshops. And the AGNES suit has helped other thousands create new technologies that help people design products, delivery services and policies that improve the lives of elders.
And here's something else that is useful – recounting the “misery of old age.”
When I began this blog 15 years ago, I was appalled by all the negative writing about old people. Whether academic research, news and magazine stories, movies, TV, novels and more, the prevailing attitude was that getting old is the worst thing that can happen to anyone.
I didn't believe that and then made the rookie mistake of ignoring too much of the downsides of ageing. Looking back at those years, I found a lot of overstatement on my part about how good life is after 60 or 70 or 80 and more.
Geez. Of COURSE, our bodies slow down. Some body parts stop working properly. Others give out. Mysterious aches and pains show up. It's what bodies do. The key in old age is to adapt but that's for another day.
What I've changed here at TGB now since I realized my early mistake in being a bit too rosy about the effects of growing old, is make room on a fairly regular basis to complain and moan and groan and bitch about the irritations of life in the old person lane.
I believe this kind of time is valuable particularly now when we in the oldest generation have lived most of our adult lives in an atmosphere where old age could barely be acknowledged let alone discussed.
But it helps - a lot sometimes - to learn that other people are struggling through the same things you are. It doesn't mean we don't also laugh, read books, go to the movies and whatever else engages us that is still possible. But letting off steam together kind of clears the air.
But no one here is “making a misery of old age.”