Product designer (and gerontologist) Patricia Moore, at 27 years old, used latex wrinkles, make-up, a wig and clothing to disguise herself as a woman aged in her 80s. Over a period of three years, Moore went about as an old woman and found that, for example (younger) people pushed ahead of her in queues, assumed she was deaf, and that she would be easily confused. One of Moore’s conclusions was that, ‘perhaps the worst thing about aging may be the overwhelming sense that everything around you is letting you know that you are not terribly important any more’ (Moore and Conn, 1985: 76).
Moore’s experiment shows that old people are disadvantaged, not necessarily by their physical old age, but by other (younger) people’s stereotypical assumptions based on their appearance of being old.
Moore may have looked like an old person, but she can’t really claim to have physically felt like an old person. A new innovation in Germany addresses this issue. Scientists have invented an ‘Age Man Suit’ (sic), designed to give the wearer the physical sensations of being old (defined as over 75). The suit, which weighs 10kg, consists of ear-protectors that muffle hearing, a yellow visor that blurs eyesight and makes it hard to distinguish colours, knee and elbow pads which stiffen the joints, a vest which constricts the chest, and padded gloves.
The suit, also known as the ‘Age Explorer’, has been developed by Rahel Eckardt, a senior physician at Berlin’s Evangelical Geriatrics Centre to enlighten medical students about what the physiological sense of being old feels like, and to help product developers be sensitive to the needs of older people. Journalist Kate Connolly experienced wearing the suit and reported that ‘A walk up the stairs leaves one breathless and tired, trying to remove tablets from a blister pack is a fumbling disaster, and the heaviness coupled with the stifled hearing and vision is distinctly disorienting’.
With the ageing of the population, product designers and medics are just two amongst many groups in society that have to better understand the experiences of being old. Technologies (like the Age Explorer suit) which enable younger people to experience virtually the physicality of old age are a step in the right direction; and we can all learn lessons from Moore’s experiment in how just looking like an old person can lead to stereotyping and discrimination.
But from a sociological perspective, being old is not just about the physiological appearance or sensations that come with having a long-lived body (Pilcher 1995; Hunt 2005). Physiological ageing is one part of the ageing process, along with social ageing through the life course and through cohort. The life course is the socially and culturally defined timetable of events and experiences that our particular society expects of us as we grow up and grow older. Because societies’ structures and cultures vary over time and place, what old people are expected to do and how they are meant to be also varies. Cohort location in historical time also makes a difference to the experiences of being old: the ‘when’ of old age as a stage in the life course matters just as much as the ‘where’, and just as much as the physiological experiences in and of themselves. In fact, the three ageing processes work together across the life span to fundamentally influence a person’s experience of the physicality of old age, amongst other aspects.
From a sociological perspective, ageing is a multi-faceted social phenomenon as much as a physiological one. The ‘Age Explorer’ suit is a great invention, giving a sense of the physicality of being old – but it cannot give medics or product designers and so on the full rounded social experience of being an old person, someone who has lived through a life course, and is a member of a particular historically determined cohort. For example, by virtue of their life course and cohort, old people may adhere to social values, styles of clothing, forms of technology and sources of entertainment that seem ‘old fashioned’ by contemporary standards. As Dowd (1986) argues, these social aspects of ageing can make old people appear to (younger) others as if they are ‘immigrants in time’ and make themselves feel like they are ‘strangers in their own land’. Women, who make up a great proportion of old people, are at a much greater risk of poverty than men in old age. This is not a function of physiological processes of ageing, but of gendered life course histories which mean that women have had a much more intermittent history of paid work, with consequences for their pensions and savings. These are social processes of ageing, important aspects of the experience of being old that medics and product designers and so on also need to know about, and not just the physical difficulties that can come with old age.
Connolly, K. (2012) ‘Suit lets medical students experience symptoms of old age’, The Guardian, 9 July.
Dowd, J. (1986) ‘The Old Person as Stranger’ in Marshall, V. (ed.) The Social Psychology of Aging, London: Sage.
Hunt, S. (2005) The Life Course, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Moore, P. and Conn, C. (1985) Disguised: A True Story, London: W Pub Group.
Pilcher, J. (1995) Age and Generation in Modern Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press.