Making a Misery of Old Age?

What It's Like to Be Old

That headline is not about me nor is it about most of you who are reading this. We're already old and we know quite well what being old is like.

Instead, I'm talking about much younger people, the ones who invent, design and/or market products and services for and to old people. You know, the ones who haven't a clue about what old age is like but who don't let that get in the way of telling old people what's good for them.

Like I once was and was Ceridwen Dovey, a 30-ish novelist and short story writer who tried to create a late-80s-year-old-man (among other elders) from her imagination. As she said later in the New Yorker about her attempt:

”I modeled my characters on the two dominant cultural constructions of old age: the doddering, depressed pensioner and the ageless-in-spirit, quirky oddball.

“After reading the first draft, an editor I respect said to me, 'But what else are they, other than old?'”

This next quotation, longer than the first, is from psychologist Tamara McClintock Greenberg writing in Psychology Today about learning what many elders live with every day.

After being outfitted with earplugs, popcorn kernels for her shoes, gloves to simulate neuropathy and eyeglasses to limit peripheral vision, she tried the “simple” activity of walking no more than a few feet down a hall.

”I thought to myself,” said Dr. Greenberg, “'I can do this.'”

“Then, given a cane, I was asked to walk down the hall. It was maybe 100 feet. I was pretending to be an elder with impaired hearing and vision, bad mobility and numbness in my hands and pain in my feet. I realized that I was not sure that I could actually complete the walk down the hall.

“Suddenly, my class exercise did not feel like a game. I started to panic. From the loss of peripheral vision, I could not see who was standing next to me, and I started to feel suspicious. As I walked, I had a lovely young woman at my side (I was lucky, she is a physical therapist in real life), who could help me if I needed it.

“I did not want help however; I wanted out of my body, which felt trapped, alone, and isolated. Weirdly, even though we were pretending, I felt mad at my companion, who had a body that worked so much better than mine.

“It was at this moment I understood something in a way that I never have before. I thought, I might kill myself if I had to live this way.”

She's not alone in that thought and some elders carry it through to its logical conclusion. Most, however, do not.

As it turns out, those changes that were made to limit Dr. Greenberg's mobility already exist in what the Age Lab at MIT calls its AGNES suit (invented at the Age Lab) that simulates the physical difficulties that come with old age. Here is a short video about what AGNES does:

There is a further explanation on the YouTube page:

”Put on this suit and you feel increased fatigue, reduced flexibility in joints and muscles, spinal compression, and difficulty with vision and balance.

“Altogether, AGNES is more than just a suit. It is a calibrated method developed and constructed by exercise physiologists, engineers, and designers. As demographics shift, we need to fully understand the needs of an aging population to design a future that is accessible and engaging for people of every age.”

The Try Guys are a group of four comedians, actors and filmmakers who, since 2014, have been making videos about – well, anything they are curious about – what it's like to be a mother, changing diapers, making cupcakes, pottery and in today's case, testing the AGNES suit.

Last month, the Age Lab posted several videos about ageing – two of them about the AGNES suit. Here is the first one with the four members of The Try Guys along with the director of the Age Lab, Joseph Coughlin. (Pay attention to him. He knows a lot about what it's like to be old.)

These are long-ish videos. If you are up for more, here is the video of The Try Guys wearing the suits for a full day. The video makes an important point about being old that is rarely mentioned – how hard it is to get through a day of what we called normal activity when we were younger, but no more. It's not easy when you're old.

MIT AgeLab and the AGNES suit have helped many companies design products and services that better and more realistically serve old people's needs.

As I've said many times and Joseph Coughlin says at least once in these videos, anything that improves life for old people does so, too, for people of every age. As just one example, curb cuts work as well for mothers with kids in strollers as they do for adults in wheel chairs and scooters.

We need a lot more of such seemingly “ordinary” innovations; the U.S. Census Bureau tells us that “by 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.7 million under the age of 18.”

Feel free to add anything in the comments that would help not-yet-old people understand what being old is like.

(Even though they've been around online since 2014, I had never heard of The Try Guys before researching this story. They're funny while trying all sorts of things they've never done before and in addition to laughs they leave you, by the end of each episode, with some interesting thoughts, ideas, facts and information you probably didn't know before.)

Here is their YouTube channel.


I'd just be delighted if they increased the size of the print on labels, especially on OTC meds that would help everyone, not just "old" people. Who does this stuff? I have magnifiers all over the house & I wear prescription glasses. I'm 82 & do just fine. Just keep moving. Walking is the best! Dee :)

One thing that they will not be able to simulate is the pain that adds to the difficulty of using an old body already made difficult by the inefficiency of the body machine.

If the engineers that are studying the aging problems add numerous aches and pains to Agnes they will stop the study because they will realize that this knowledge will add to the suicide rate among elders. The simplest task becomes a challenge for me now, and it exhausts me to just stay alive. Who, in their right mind, would want to live like this?

Tongue in cheek, I do think of one plus side to that - it will solve the coming difficulty of the fiscal deficit in the SS Trust Fund.

These videos are going to my children, so they can understand and we can talk about this.

Fist-bump(???) with Dee - walking is the best. It can create or improve mindfulness and eye coordination. I look for every teensy-tiny thing that I might have a problem with, including cars.

Senior center here has contract with Lyft to provide rides costing $4 or $8 each way, taking one to medical facilities or to center, and the return home. It extends quite far (~ 15 miles) and the center makes reservations for you.

What I find most annoying is the unpredictability of my energy and pain management. Some days are great, others fall apart and the psychological effect of this on me takes a day or two to recover from.

And small print drives me mad. I need to carry a magnifying glass for ingredient listings on everything. I avoid sugar and gluten when I can.

Also lack of seating/benches for quick breaks. I've got into the habit of quick scans of large areas, like malls, hospitals, parks, etc. to suss out seating. Sadly absent in many areas or not enough.


I have a strong negative reaction to these types of suits. Although they may convey the experience of frail older persons, 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. Thus, they perpetuate ageism and the myth that aging into later years is terrible. How about a suit that conveys the increased happiness, stability, and understanding that comes with aging!

Oops, meant to type ... mean crawling critters, not cars - ha!

Which reminds me that a young man nearly hit me - I could touch his car hood - yes, I think if I was 40+ years younger, his eyes might not have automatically looked past me. Then again, at high traffic times, there's much to look out for when driving.

Will definitely check out the Try Guys! Am involved in running a 4-week summer internship for high school students, to teach them not only about different career paths ahead in elder care, but also about mythbusting re: aging. Last year I shared with our interns info and website of Embodied Labs which uses virtual reality to convey to students, caregivers and health professionals the realities of aging. So far they've tackled macular degeneration, hearing loss, progression of Alzheimer's and end-of-life issues. The latter, starting with having a tough conversation about prognosis and ending with what it looks and feels like to be dying. The young women who founded this company had been caregivers themselves; the business grew out of their insights and experience. Worth looking at.

I'm reminded of a time years ago when I gave myself corneal abrasions by the misuse of contact lenses and had both eyes patched for a few days. I was able to get around my house pretty well after a steep learning curve, but I always knew that in a little while my corneas would heal and the patches would come off. I learned nothing about the experience of living the rest of my life with blindness.
I think these toys have some utility, 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.

Wisewebwoman mentioned seating. I've often found myself looking around wishing there was a place to sit down for a few minutes and so often there's nothing. There's a little creek and green belt near my house where I like to walk, but it's uphill coming back. Wrote a note to the city about how nice it would be to have a bench there. A week later, it appeared! Right where I'd suggested. I was bowled over.

Harold's closing statement really hit home -- waking up with "an awareness that this is the best it's ever going to be." It's like having the sword of Damocles hanging over you; any day could bring the change that takes away your independence, choice, home, forever.

Thank you for all this.

Okay brother and sister old people: does this happen to any of you? I find myself dreading going to bed because I know that whatever aches I've accumulated during the day will assert themselves when I lie down. In order to doze off, I need to experience what I think of as "letting them be" before truly sleeping. By mornings they are mostly gone (maybe that won't hold forever), but for now they make me not want to lie down.

Don't know if the aging simulators are on to that one.

I think the simulators are probably useful in helping to bring about better ways to adjust to physical limitations and improve adaptive devices, which is good. However, I'm with Darlene, Harold and Susan R. We seriously need better ways of managing pain and debility, but I don't see that coming anytime soon under the current administration.

Old age: bah, humbug! It is what it is. . .

Yup, fist bumps to Dee on walking, and also to James on the learnings that enhance old age. Well, I guess it's thoughtful of people to think about aging to the best of their ability, if only on the physical level. Up to and including today, I feel it's my responsibility to be the best I can be with what I'm given. Which at this point in time, is pretty good. Who knows? I feel that doing a morning blessing of earth, air, sun, water and me is good. Meditating is good. Walking is good. Gratitudes before sleeping is good. Even on a very bad day, some small thing will come to mind and heart, a breeze, a feather, a thought. Some day someone will study all this, and make conclusions.

Thank you for introducing us to Agnes.

What Salinda said.

Sometimes it hurts to be alive!

My Pilates friend carefully rolls out his mat beside mine, then he takes out a small box, removes his hearing aids, places them one by one inside the box on the mat.

Then he picks up the box and places it like an egg in his sports bag pocket.

He stands up, looks at me, nods, tries to read my lips.

I say hello. His lips stretch into a smile..

"When you hit age 75, all hell breaks loose in yiur body."

I'm fixated on the price $$$$$$$ of those hearing aids, and wonder why I dreamed of Mick Jagger last night.

Only this Mick Jagger was walking across a rope bridge in Ireland.

I wondered what the heck MJ was doing in my dream.

You know when you suddenly wake mid dream and feel cheated because you wanted to see where the dream was going?

None of the above are connected. Or are they?

The hearing aids, Mick Jagger, the rope bridge.

Just go with it, I guess.

Enjoy the ride..

If they could design the "old suit" to make the wearer feel depressed and frustrated too, then maybe they'll have something.

Bruce Cooper - exactly, they have to fix the suits so the wearers cannot get out of them for days or weeks, voila, depressed and frustrated I bet. And scared.

I’m with Bruce. I am not impressed with either the AGNES suit or the “Try Guys” experiment. Contrary to the title of the video, the Try Guys do NOT live like 80-year olds for a day. They live like 30 year olds pretending to be old, making the usual jokes about it and then laughing with relief as they remove their old-age suits and return to “normal.” Harold said it best: they can’t possibly understand unless they feel the awareness that this is the best it’s ever going to be.

Tamara McClintock Greenburg came much closer to the reality of aging because she experienced some of the pain that accompanies the difficulties of aging. Her anger at the agility of her young companion even resonates with me because I can always sense that however sympathetic the young may seem, they are still thinking that I could move as well as they if I would just exert myself. How do I know? Because that was my mindset when I used to slow myself down to walk with my mother.

Sure, old people can make the best of things and find as many work arounds as possible to enable them to live with the limitations of age. If the DEA would stop persecuting us, we could even counteract a lot of the pain of arthritis with opioids. But what about the dental problems, dropping things, incontinence, difficulty sleeping, not to mention loss of the faces we once had—the aging makeup of the Try Guys took them perhaps to an AARP-level 50, but that’s not how I or my 81 year old brother look.

I acknowledge that the MIT Aging Lab is an improvement over the past, but even the lab’s director is nowhere near old enough to get it. For him, it is still theory which can be tested in an engineering laboratory. Nobody really gets it until they are old. And old people still, as the saying goes, get no respect, even when entitled to it by increased experience and wisdom. But thanks to Ronni and TGB for flying our flag. Nothing else on the internet, including Changing Aging, Senior Planet, AARP, or any other so-called “senior citizen” site comes close.

Hiring comedians to show what old age is like??? I don't know - kind of escapes me.
But yes, let's hear it for benches in public places. I need to sit and rest every couple of blocks.

Like John and a few of the others - there is something missing in youngsters "trying to be old" - useful perhaps for learning to place more seats around and print bigger labels - but 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 we can connect with like minded others on sites like TGB - when I was young (there were no teenagers then) "nobody" understood what I was going through- as a young mother with six small children "nobody" understood what it was like -when my husband left "nobody" knew what I was going through - we are all so individual - we can relate/sympathise/empathise with others but as in every stage of life - we are doing it alone - that's life - as Elizabeth said "it is what it is" and it is up to us to make the most of it - whatever your "it" is!.

Even though the experiment to experience old age is incomplete and faulty, at least the two comedians are trying to understand. That's a start. I wish my kids, relatives, and younger kids would ask me, "So what's it's like to get old?" So far, no one has asked that question of me. I wish the AARP magazine would include more of the realities of aging, instead of mostly featuring aging Barbie dolls doing something wonderful. Like other marginalized groups, we elders suffer needlessly because we (have to) do things differently and are not understood.

Count me in with those here who think that, while interesting, simulation experiences (of all sorts) are not all that helpful for getting a real experience of whatever the condition is. Similar sorts of articificial things are often used to help people understand what it's like to live in extreme poverty, but I don't think they're very effective either. Maybe they raise consciousness a bit or maybe even lead to the invention of useful items or practices (like those curb cuts you mentioned) and maybe they help to influence people's voting, or providing financial support of a cause and help improve something for someone. But for real understanding of coping with some of the simulated conditions, 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. Perhaps this is one of the reasons legalization of marijuana is getting much more support around the country and apparently going into effect here in Illinois next year. People will be allowed to grow up to three plants. I may add this to my gardening activities and start cranking out the brownies.

The current issue of The New Yorker has a story about aging research that begins with an account of what it's like to wear the AGNES suit.

I strongly recommend group classes or online lessons in The Feldenkrais Method (called "Awareness Through Movement"), and/or the introductory book Relaxercise, to increasingly regain degrees of suppleness, balance, and physical comfort that we generally don't realize are even possible for old people -- and that are surprisingly easily within reach. I recommended the book Relaxercise to my 63-year-old sister-in-law who has scarring, limited mobility, and lymph drainage problems from breast cancer and reconstruction surgery, and joint stiffness from tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors. She called me the first morning she tried it and said, "I am SHOCKED at how different I feel" after doing a sequence of movements, sitting in a chair, that is quite simple and gentle.

I have been through a Feldenkrais teacher training and I think of it as "the only way to get old." It's a matter of revisiting and reactivating the learning-through-movement we did as babies.

You don't know what it's like to be there until you are there. That's also true when you're healthy-old and thinking about what it's like to be old and not so healthy any more. You still don't know what lies ahead.

All the same, it's good to imagine, and listen, and believe what other people are experiencing. If this suit gets more young people to do that, then and only then will it have been worth while.

I'm with diane d. on the AARP magazine (and most other publications supposedly targeting older people). AARP's materials seem to be designed for "elders" of 50-60 these days because they rarely speak to or show anyone much older--unless they look like Jane Fonda, are marketing the next Big Thing and/or are planning a trek to the Himalayas.

I'm the same age as Jane and, trust me, there's not much resemblance. I bet most 80+ women look more like me! I'm in reasonably good shape and try to appear presentable in public, but c'mon, people. . .Keepin' It Real.

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