Aging suit from MIT to raise empathy for the elderly

A team of researchers in MIT's Agelab have created a suit to help people understand what it might be like to be in the shoes of an elderly person – literally. Called AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System), the suit replicates what it might be like to be in a 75-year-old body, replicating dexterity, flexibility, motor, and visual elements into a suit that can be worn by people of all ages.

The suit has braces that mimic joint stiffness and make it hard to walk; leg straps limit the speed of travel; a helmet that causes the head to be forced forward, mimicking the curved spine of an older adult. Special shoes provide a feeling of imbalance and more straps attached to the shoes decrease hamstring flexibility, and shortens the wearer's gait. Gloves give the illusion of decreased strength and mobility in the hands and wrists. It also comes with yellow goggles and earplugs that make it difficult to read and hear some things.

The idea behind the technology is to help those creating public transportation and retail spaces for older adults understand what challenges those people may have. Researchers sent students out to grocery stores wearing the suit to find low-sodium, low-sugar, and low-fat products that are typically purchased by older adults, and the students found it difficult to do so.

In addition to AGNES, the group has also created an AwareCar for better understanding the driving difficulties senior citizens may face.

“The business of old age demands new tools,” said Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab. “While focus groups and observations and surveys can help you understand what the older consumer needs and wants, young marketers never get that 'Ah ha!' moment of having difficulty opening a jar, or getting in and out of a car. That's what AGNES provides.” Coughlin and his team carefully calibrated the suit to make the wearer just as uncomfortable as an old person who has spent a lifetime eating poorly and not doing much exercise.

“The three words we associate with wearing AGNES are fatigue, friction and frustration,” said Coughlin. On a brighter note he added, “AGNES is not the destiny of everybody…She is a badly behaved lady who didn't eat and exercise very well. A secondary benefit we've found with AGNES is that it has become a powerful tool to get younger people to invest in their long-term health.”

A message from MIT reads, “AGNES is a suit worn by students, product developers, designers, engineers, marketing, planners, architects, packaging engineers, and others to better understand the physical challenges associated with aging. Developed by AgeLab researchers and students, AGNES has been calibrated to approximate the motor, visual, flexibility, dexterity and strength of a person in their mid-70s. AGNES has been used in retail, public transportation, home, community, automobile, workplace and other environments.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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