Putting Yourself in the Other Guy’s Shoes

Few of us have a clue about what it’s really like to be old. Yes, we know it involves physical limitations, like loss of mobility, flexibility, strength, dexterity and eyesight (to say nothing about the cognitively impaired).

But what does it feel like and why do we care? Remember that old adage about walking a mile in another man’s shoes? Unless you’ve been there, you’ll never know.

That is, unless you live near San Pedro, Calif. As part of its outreach course for family caregivers, a program at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center has just introduced “age suits.”

Getting in the trenches is not a new concept, though offering the opportunity to family caregivers is. For the last few years, nursing students and other healthcare professionals who work with the elderly have donned the suits in an effort to teach compassion and care for older adults.

The program’s three suits (different sizes) have pulleys, braces and tethers so participants can see what it’s like to have osteoporosis, arthritis and loss of peripheral vision, among other conditions. Tight straps ensure a stooped position and weights force the wearer to drag his/her feet. It’s no surprise that organizing medications with thick gloves is both formidable and frustrating.

Trying on the suits “is exhausting,” says Anne Lemaire, director of business development at the California medical center. “It really limits your ability to move freely, to see clearly and feel comfortable in any position. It is a literal ‘walk in the shoes’ of an elderly person and for nursing students who are twenty- somethings, it’s a real eye opener.”

MIT’s AgeLab has its own aging suit who goes by the name of AGNES (Age Gain Empathy System). AGNES, however, is geared to students, architects, engineers and developers so they can understand the physical issues around aging and be able to apply it to their work.

Medical students at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Maine–who inevitably will work with older adults in whatever field they choose–spend two weeks living side by side with residents in a nursing home. (They’re given a diagnosis, which sometimes includes using a wheelchair or walker 24/7, eating and engaging in activities with residents.)

And, caregivers at Cambridge Court’s memory care unit in Great Falls, Mont., also get a glimpse into dementia and old age. They don ear phones that play static, goggles to blur vision, and see how it feels to walk around with popcorn kernels in their gloves and feet. My guess is not very comfy.

These simulated experiences do change people’s perspectives. But whether temporarily checking into a nursing home or checking out an age suit, undoubtedly the best revelation is realizing that they can, indeed, go home again-back to their much younger, and less compromised, self.

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