Body of Work Walk­ing a mile in an “old” sim­u­la­tion suit

There are plenty of days where we think, “Man, I’m get­ting old,” but what does the ag­ing body re­ally feel like when it ac­tu­ally is older? Re­becca Field Jager suits up in a sim­u­la­tor to find out

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MY LIMBS ARE HEAVY as I strug­gle to get out of bed. When I swing my legs over the side of the mat­tress, my feet hit the floor with a plunk as though I am wear­ing army boots and not socks. I stare down at my footwear not be­cause there’s any­thing in­ter­est­ing about my plain white an­klets but be­cause my body is stooped and I can nei­ther sit straight or fully look up. Within this lim­ited field of vi­sion, I man­age to find my shoes and put them on, but the laces be­fud­dle me. I get them tied, and slowly stand. Pitter-pat­ter, let’s get at ’er, I think. Only then do I re­al­ize that my world is yel­low.

Get­ting old is for the birds, my mother likes to say and, while on most days these words fly out of her mouth with grace, some­times like re­luc­tant star­lings forced from the nest, they fal­ter and fall to the ground. On these lat­ter oc­ca­sions, I try to com­mis­er­ate with a lit- any of my per­sonal ag­ing laments – Wrin­kles! Weight! Sweet geezus, not batwings! Mom feigns sym­pa­thy but, of course, her sen­ti­ments ring as hol­low as mine would if my own daugh­ter ever dared to com­plain about be­ing 30.

Like many boomers, I some­times won­der what get­ting old will feel like but quickly push such thoughts from my head. And so when I re­cently had the op­por­tu­nity to don an ag­ing sim­u­la­tion suit (in­deed, there is such a thing), I said yes with a mix­ture of cu­rios­ity and dread.

The pre-en­act­ment, if you will, took place at Ter­races of Bay­crest, the re­tire­ment res­i­dence at Bay­crest Health Sciences, a re­search and teach­ing hospi­tal in Toronto. Lisa Sokoloff, the man­ager of train­ing and sim­u­la­tion at its ed­u­ca­tion cen­tre, helped me get into the jump­suit-style ap­parel and ex­plained that she’d set up a “day-in-the-life” type scenario of the av­er­age elder. For 30 min­utes, I would age about 30 years, she warned me, which would put me at 85. My birth­day falls just be­fore Mom’s, and for two days ev­ery year we are 30 years apart, so the num­ber res­onated.

The ag­ing sim­u­la­tion suit is a train­ing tool de­signed to help staff at fa­cil­i­ties such as Bay­crest de­velop em­pa­thy for the se­niors in their care. And the same sort of suit is used by man­u­fac­tur­ers such as Ford of Canada to help de­sign ve­hi­cles with a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of an older per­son’s chal­lenges and needs. Ac­cord­ing to Stacey Hay­wood, a spokesper­son for Spec­trum Nasco, a provider of health-care sim­u­la­tion prod­ucts, the suits Bay­crest uses cost ap­prox­i­mately $3,000 each. They are used in most col­leges across Canada that of­fer Per­sonal Sup­port Worker (PSW) pro­grams to help stu­dents un­der­stand the lim­i­ta­tions of their fu­ture pa­tients. As such, the suit comes with ad­justable ac­ces­sories – belts, buck­les, braces and weights – that work to­gether to

sim­u­late the phys­i­cal and sen­sory changes as­so­ci­ated with ag­ing. For ex­am­ple, weights, fas­tened to the wrists and an­kles, cre­ate the ef­fects of de­creased mus­cle strength and at­ro­phy. Belts ex­tend­ing from the shoul­ders and buck­led at the waist hunch the torso over repli­cat­ing kypho­sis, the cur­va­ture of the spine of­ten caused by os­teo­poro­sis and arthri­tis. Braces re­strict the range of mo­tion of the el­bows, knees and neck, mim­ick­ing the stiff­en­ing of joints that comes with decades of wear and tear. And that’s the good part. Once I had the suit on and it was all rigged up, Sokoloff handed me gog­gles, earplugs and gloves. It was the im­pair­ment of my senses of sight, sound and touch caused by these ad­di­tions that got to me.

First off, the tinted gog­gles, which lim­ited my pe­riph­eral vi­sion, a con­se­quence of ag­ing, also made ev­ery­thing around me ap­pear yel­low­ish. Yel­low­ing of the eye lens is an age-re­lated con­di­tion that makes it tough to dis­crim­i­nate be­tween shades of blue, green and vi­o­let. It makes it more dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish colours – pick­ing out clothes can be a prob­lem – and of­ten it’s harder to fig­ure out where an ob­ject ends and its back­ground be­gins. Curbs and steps then can be a hazard, and al­though my sim­u­la­tion took place in­doors, I moved about cau­tiously so I wouldn’t trip over any­thing. When Sokoloff in­structed me to sign a doc­u­ment, the words were fuzzy so I couldn’t read them. Play-act­ing to em­u­late some­one with au­thor­ity but lit­tle pa­tience, she was in­sis­tent so, like many a se­nior in that po­si­tion I’m sure, I signed it any­way.

Thanks to the earplugs, many of Sokoloff’s or­ders were muf­fled. Any­one who has ever had wa­ter in their ears will rec­og­nize that type of hear­ing loss but I was sur­prised to learn that as we age, hear­ing high­pitched sounds be­comes more dif- fi­cult. Aysha Ban­dali, a nurse prac­ti­tioner at Bay­crest, ex­plained that be­cause of this, of­ten the el­derly don’t rec­og­nize when your voice goes up and may not re­al­ize you’re ask­ing them a ques­tion. If you say, for ex­am­ple, Okay, so we’re all set and ready to go? a se­nior may think you’re mak­ing a state­ment and have no clue you’re ex­pect­ing an an­swer.

But the worst part for me was the gloves de­signed to re­duce sen­sory in­put and the abil­ity to grip, again, con­di­tions of get­ting older. Think about all the things we do ev­ery­day that re­quire dex­ter­ity and rely on our sense of feel­ing like but­ton­ing up a sweater (you don’t have to look down). As we age, the nerves may con­duct sig­nals more slowly and re­strict our abil­ity to dis­crim­i­nate ob­jects by touch alone. Ban­dali of­fers the ex­am­ple of a younger woman be­ing able to find a key in her purse by sim­ply fid­dling around in there and “see­ing” it with her fingers.

“An older per­son may have to empty the con­tents of her purse on the ta­ble so she can ac­tu­ally see the key,” Ban­dali ex­plains.

And so it was that ev­ery­thing from get­ting dressed to get­ting out the door be­came a chal­lenge. In ad­di­tion, to sim­u­late the de­cline in cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties some se­niors ex­pe­ri­ence, Sokoloff had set up a se­ries of scene­r­ios such as telling me to take my med­i­ca­tion but with the lo­ca­tion not dis­closed to sim­u­late mem­ory loss. Fling­ing open kitchen draw­ers and search­ing in hardto-reach cup­boards was ex­as­per­at­ing and I al­most wept when I fi­nally found the lit­tle bot­tle in the fridge. When I was di­rected to leave the apart­ment, I hadn’t been ad­vised that the lock was tricky. Al­though ob­vi­ously in my own mind I knew ev­ery­thing was fine, the fum­bling and frus­tra­tion left me pan­icky.

Of course, in real life, ag­ing doesn’t hap­pen overnight, and mer­ci­fully we get decades to adapt so I was anx­ious to share the ex­pe­ri­ence with my mother and com­pare notes.

“It was re­ally hard, Mom. Is that how you feel about be­ing old?” I asked (I know, I know, I’m a real treat).

Off the bat, Mom pointed out that she felt lucky to have man­aged so far to es­cape some of the ag­ing con­di­tions I’d ex­pe­ri­enced – her hear­ing and eye­sight are good; she uses a cane and some­times a walker, but her pos­ture is fine. But then, her voice grew wist­ful.

“I know I’m 86 but I don’t feel like a lit­tle old lady. I don’t think about the num­ber. In­stead, I try to keep busy with things like you kids and some of the stuff go­ing on around here,” she said, re­fer­ring to the se­nior res­i­dence in North Bay at which she lives. “And, you know, I al­ways try to look nice be­cause that makes me feel bet­ter. Even if I just go down­stairs to get the mail, I get dolled up.”

I laugh when I hear this be­cause it fills me with hap­pi­ness to know that some things don’t change – I’ve never known my mother to leave the house with­out lip­stick. I just have to re­mind my­self the next time I’m im­pa­tiently hold­ing her apart­ment door open as if a hall­way gust might help to whisk us out, that the process of find­ing and ap­ply­ing her beloved Ro­man­tic Rose takes a lit­tle longer.

The au­thor be­ing fit­ted into the aged sim­u­la­tion suit

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