I Wore An Old-Age Simulation Suit And Discovered Why Grandpa's Pissed All The Time
“What a drag it is, getting old.”
Those exact words were said by Mick Jagger when he was 22 and are still sung (miraculously) by him half a century later, with all irony replaced by first-hand experience. As I literally dragged my leg across Genworth’s testing lab treadmill, the tight mechanical grasp of their aging suit restricting all movement in my thigh and hips, I found myself taking solace in Jagger’s timeless axiom.
The Genworth R70i suit is designed to simulate the ravages of aging on a younger body. Ravages I felt, as my own young(ish) body was driven through the octogenarian gamut of misfortune. I experienced tunnel vision, hearing loss, aphasia, stiff joints, cataracts, nerve pain, and simulated weight gain. Normally, one would have to be in Las Vegas to get all of those symptoms in such rapid succession, but here I was, tucked in the Colorado mountains, turned into a limping cocktail of Grandpa-problems in a matter of minutes.
The genius behind the suit
When I first put on the suit—with its thick, blue lycra undergarment and titanium exoskeleton, decked with glowing LED saucers—I couldn’t help but note how badass I looked. The Oculus Rift-meets-binoculars headgear gave my reflected image a grainy, cinematic distortion that made me feel like an Avenger (it was only afterwards I realized I looked more like an extra in a low-budget remake of Tron). And aside from feeling like Tony Stark, the whole experience conjured memories of a premium amusement park ride, which made sense after I learned the man behind the suit, Bran Ferren, had lent his talented hand to more than a few Orlando attractions.
"I looked like an extra in a low-budget remake of Tron."
“This project is really about, how can we allow someone, first-person, to experience what it’s like to get older—reversibly—in a matter of minutes rather than decades,” Ferren told a packed room at the Aspen Ideas Festival. And when Bran talks, you listen. Ferren founded Applied Minds in 2000 after serving as the former President of Disney’s Imagineers. He’s also picked up three Academy Awards for Science and Engineering as well as Technical Achievement. In short, he knows his stuff.
Bran got involved with the project after he was approached by Genworth (an insurance company looking to shed some light on the intricacies of the aging process and educate the public). Genworth hopes to raise awareness around what they’re calling “America’s next great crisis.” Basically, as our parents' generation gets older —10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day for the next 19 years—the glut of new seniors is going to cause waves of trouble for our generation. In essence, we will be stuck taking care of an unprecedented number of elderly people, ripe with medical problems. Problems I understood immediately upon donning the bulky suit.
The process of putting on the contraption began in a private room, where I was given a skintight wetsuit to replace my jeans and button down. “Things are going to get a little sweaty,” I was told by the Applied Minds handlers. “You won’t want to get your clothes wet.” When I stepped backwards into the exoskeleton, hanging from a harness, I was told, “Brace yourself, this is going to be heavy.” The exoskeleton—its battery-containing backpack alone weighed 40+ lbs—bogged me down immediately. “This is part of the process,” Ferren explained, “as most people are expected to gain up to 60 lbs as they age.” How convenient.
Going deaf and blind in a matter of minutes
After the exoskeleton was fixed to my frame, its five hydraulic knobs glowing an electric, docile blue, I put on the helmet. This only made me more unbalanced, with its connected goggles and headphones adding about five to seven pounds. At this point, I was a cyborg, and it was showtime. I stepped onto the blue-lit stage, bearing the weight of the full get-up, and was run through the motions to test out my newfound (dis)abilities in front of the gathered crowd of Genworth/Applied Minds staff.
First, came the hearing loss. I have myriad memories of my Grandmother, who passed away at a fiesty 98, struggling with her hearing for the final years of her life. As I experienced sensorineural hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing of the ears) in my high-powered headphones, I finally understood how difficult it was for people with subpar hearing to go about their daily routine. The voices were barely audible, and the ringing in my eardrums made me feel like I just left a Who concert, circa ‘75. It was unbearable, to be honest. I felt pain, for every time I was frustrated by my Grandma asking me to repeat something, or choosing not to join in conversations.
"I felt pain, for every time I was frustrated by my Grandma asking me to repeat something."
Perhaps the biggest shocker of the whole experience was my rendezvous with aphasia: a cognitive hearing disability that’s almost akin to dyslexia of the mouth. I was told to recite “Mary had a little lamb” out loud. It came out “Marrrrrry, Mary had. Had. Ahhhhh. Little. Little. Had a. Little. Lamb.” My own voice was looped and played back a split second after I was supposed to be hearing it, simulating the debilitating condition. I sounded like I was 12 beers deep and had earplugs on, and there was nothing I could do to fix it. Combined with the ringing and hearing loss, I was cut off from the world around me. “Often times, people with these kinds of problems don’t even want to leave the house,” Ferren said, “it causes them to withdraw...and can you blame them?”
Part two of my own demo focused on vision problems. I watched idly as the world around me dissipated and slowly blurred away before my augmented eyes. Tunnel vision, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and excessive floaters, all came and went, as I stared wildly around the room. My goggles were hooked up to a high-speed computer, which transmitted digital versions of ocular ailments.
I was trying to guess each individual diagnosis out loud, while desperately trying not to think of the last time I had my own eyes checked. This kind of heightened self-awareness is one of Genworth’s goals, actually:
“Besides getting a conversation started about aging, it’s also an effort to get younger people—and older people, too—to take a look at how they are taking care of themselves,” Ferren told me. It worked. I scheduled an eye exam as soon as I got back to New York.
After gaining my vision back, it was time to check out the part of the suit that I was most curious about: the joints and muscles simulator. As I watched others limp around in the suit, I figured out that when the blue lights flashed red, the suit would enter old-man mode. “We’re going to test out your arms first, are you ready?” a Genworth rep asked me. As I moved my arms in a “rope climbing” motion, the menacing red light tugged and stiffened my joints, making me feel like the Tin Man in an oil drought. My body dissolved into the suit (after a while, you kind of forget you are wearing it) and I became exceedingly weirded out at having such difficulty moving my hands and arms.
Ever run on a treadmill with a busted hip?
Ferren took headcounts after each of the suit’s simulated impairments was displayed by one test subject, Sean. And with each query, like “How many people here have Glaucoma?” or “Does anyone have a fake hip?” more and more liver-spotted, visibly stiff hands rose out of the crowd. It was as if they were paid extras, there to remind us the aging crisis was right in front of our not-yet-cataract eyes. My most burning question was why Ferren and Genworth would commit these kind of resources to a simulation suit, when (arguably) their time and money would be much more valuable in an effort to help these people slowly shuffling out of the room.
"I moved like the Tin Man in an oil drought"
“Awareness is our concern, and it’s extremely important. Some of these technologies—the cochlear implants, the exoskeleton—versions of these things we are developing, will one day be able to assist and help people dealing with aging. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 20 years, technology similar to this suit were to be used to help older people,” Ferren said. Ostensibly, the suit is a conversation starter, an impetus for understanding, and Genworth plans on bringing it around the country—on tour—to display the effects of aging to people across classes and age groups.
The last stage of my simulated journey through my own mortality was a stroll on the Genworth treadmill, with red lights flaring and my body highly incapacitated. My heart rate was connected to a monitor, and as I stepped onto the treadmill (which I normally have an aversion to, in the first place) I knew this was the part of the experience I was simultaneously dreading and anticipating. I lugged along the treadmill, where a giant screen displayed a tree-lined Aspen trail.
As I proceeded down the route, and as the suit’s remote controller shifted through the gears—knee stiffness, hip stiffness, knee and hip stiffness—I gasped for breath, feeling like I was walking uphill in Forrest Gump-style leg braces. If this is a realistic representation of leg and joint issues—and, given Ferren’s experience, I’m sure it is—I simply don’t know how (or why) people who suffer from these impairments leave their homes in the morning. It was, in a word, brutal.
My ultimate takeaway
As I slipped off the suit, my skin soaked (the guys were right, after all), I thought of my own parents, who sometimes seem to age decades instead of months whenever I see them. I thought of the crowd that attended the lecture, coughing and talking so loudly (they certainly couldn’t hear themselves properly). I thought of the burden of responsibility my generation will face, as my girlfriend (who works in healthcare) is already telling stories about the overwhelming older population, and what it’s doing to the healthcare system.
I thought of myself, as most people tend to do, and what my own health means to me. This is exactly Genworth’s and Ferren’s aim: to broach an often boring and almost always overlooked issue, that is soon to be a major problem for our world. Janice Luvera of Genworth summed it up, perfectly: “The good news is that people are living longer. The bad news is, we are not prepared to handle it."
Driving away from the complex, my iPhone didn’t play any songs about getting older being a drag. I put on The Faces' “Oh-La-La,” with it’s oft-repeated refrain of, “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger,” because in a way, I had fulfilled that seemingly impossible wish. And as I walked, care- (and limp-) free, up to the plane taking me away from the mountains of Aspen, I realized just how lucky I was to be young. But no matter what innovations come along in the future, the feeling won’t last forever.
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