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How it feels to transform into a frail senior with the ‘aging simulation suit’

Toronto’s Michener Institute says putting people in the aging simulation suit helps boost their empathy.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The Globe and Mail's week-long series on baby boomers and how their spending, investing, health and lifestyle decisions could affect Canada's economy in the next fifteen years. Is Canada ready for the boom?

Panic sets in when I put on a pair of clunky, yellow-tinted goggles and grapple for my walking cane.

Moments ago, I was a healthy 36-year-old. But now, wearing an aging simulation suit at the Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences in Toronto, I've been transformed into to a frail senior citizen, suffering from impaired vision, hearing loss, kyphosis (an exaggerated hunching of the spine) and joints so stiff I can't bend down to touch my toes.

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The goggles block my peripherial vision and blur my sight so I can't see more than a couple metres directly in front of me and the yellow tinge mimics cataracts. Weights, which have been sewn into the sleeves and pantlegs of my suit, distort my balance and make my arms and legs weary. I feel clumsy. I feel anxious. With my senses dulled, I feel cut off from the world around me. If I fall, I realize with dread, I might not be able to pick myself back up.

This "frail aging simulation suit" is used by the Michener Institute as part of its training of applied health students, from future X-ray technologists to geneticists. It gives wearers a sense of what it's like to be feeble, boosting their empathy and offering insights on how they can better accommodate seniors' needs.

The suit, which was made in Japan, was originally used by car manufacturers to help them design more accessible environments for seniors, explains Gillian Nichol, the institute's director of continuing education. As the generation of baby boomers edge closer to retirement age, similar suits that replicate the physical limitations of aging have been used by hospitals, in health-care training programs and even companies such as British bank Barclays, to help staff understand the accessibility challenges that a growing elderly population faces.

"They've become quite a popular tool," Nichol says.

I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a window of the institute's fourth-floor Centre for the Advancement of Simulation and Education, where students run through mock scenarios they would typically encounter in a hospital or clinic setting. The bright orange jumpsuit I'm wearing has adjustable straps along the front that have been tightened to keep me hunched over. Thick fabric bands are wound around my elbows and knees and a rigid collar has been strapped around my neck to approximate joint stiffness and limit my mobility. I'm wearing white cloth gloves to reduce my sensitivity to touch, which commonly occurs with age. Spongy earplugs are stuffed in my ears, muffling the voices of those around me.

"Er?" I ask, as Audrey Gottlieb, co-ordinator of new programs, puts me through a simulation exercise.

She assumes the role of a clinic receptionist and calls me up to her desk to hand me an intake form. I fumble with the pen and clipboard. She tells me to have a seat in the waiting area while I fill it in, then beckons me back to her desk moments later to collect it. When she asks me to sit back down again until she calls me, I silently curse her.

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Gottlieb gets me to do a number of other common tasks: find a specific room, put on a hospital gown, lay down in a hospital bed. All are easier said than done.

Putting on a hospital gown without any assistance is frustrating, embarrassing and downright impossible. After several minutes of fumbling with the ties around my neck, I'm sweaty and defeated, with the ties only half-fastened. Modesty be damned.

"There's another one," Nichol says, pointing out I've neglected a second set of ties around my mid-back, leaving my backside exposed.

This is awful.

When students go through these exercises, Gottlieb explains, she asks them to consider ways of making the experience easier for seniors. Many of the solutions require little extra effort: print out paperwork in a larger font, check in patients while they're seated instead of having them come to the reception desk, accompany them to their examination rooms, offer gowns with velcro fastenings, help them into a comfortable position when they lie down and ensure they can see one's lips when speaking to them.

Since the Institute began using the frail aging simulation suit about three years ago, in partnership with Toronto's Baycrest Health Sciences, Nichol says at least one student has broken into tears of frustration during training, while a physiotherapist who had been practising for 20 years found himself re-evaluating methods he'd used his entire career.

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"He said to me he never realized how hard it was for a senior to do what he was asking of them. And so after 20 years, he really got what it was like," Nichol says.

After about 20 minutes in the simulation suit, I'm glad to return to my body. I've now seen my future self, and she is bumbling, fatigued and vulnerable. It won't be pleasant when my body fails me. When that day arrives, I hope the professionals in charge of my care will have already experienced what I go through.

For more stories from the boomer series, visit tgam.ca/boomershift.

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