Age simulation suit aged me 30 years in just a few seconds

Aurica Tripon assisting Sheena in the suit. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Aurica Tripon assisting Sheena in the suit. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Advancing age brings all sorts of challenges that are hard for younger, more able-bodied people to fully understand, however empathetic they may be. That’s why a Suffolk home care company has bought an ‘ageing suit’ to assist staff training. Sheena Grant tried it out...

Occasionally, after a poor night’s sleep or an extra busy day, I have been known to complain that I feel as though I’m aged about 80.

It’s not something I’ll be doing anymore for the simple reason that thanks to an experience I had today, I now know a great deal more about how, exactly, it feels to have some of the physical impairments that can go with advancing age.

And, I have to tell you, it’s nothing like being 40, or even 50 and feeling a tad tired, a little lethargic or even slightly under the weather.

The reason for my enlightenment is something called a GERontologic Test suit, or GERT suit, for short, owned by Ipswich-based Anglia Care.

The home care provider, which has 110 clients, invested in the suit so its 26 carers can develop a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be elderly and to have sensory and mobility impairments that can have a real impact on everyday life and affect mental and emotional wellbeing too. If clients have dementia the impact of these other age-related impairments can be even greater.

The company invited me to try out the suit in order to write about this technology, developed in Germany to come as close as possible to replicating the physical realities of advancing age.

Most Read

I have to admit I felt nervous before putting on the suit. As I chatted with training and recruitment manager Dinu Morar and office administrator Ema Tripon in the company’s training room, equipped with hospital-type bed and other paraphernalia to resemble a client’s home, its presence nearby, on a mannequin called ‘Angela’, loomed large in my peripheral vision.

After all, the GERT simulates opacity of the eye lens, narrowing of the visual field, high-frequency hearing loss, head mobility restrictions, joint stiffness, loss of strength, reduced grip ability and reduced coordination skills - a lot of ‘ageing’ to deal with in one fell swoop.

As Ema and Dinu secured me into the weighted vest jacket, ankle and wrist attachments, neck collar, knee and elbow movement restrictors, gloves, goggles and hearing loss ear muffs it felt as though I was suddenly - and literally - weighed down with advancing age.

As I laid back on the bed and attempted to haul myself back up to sitting position I understood why just getting out of bed in the morning can represent a gargantuan effort for some older people. My muscles didn’t seem to work like they usually did. I had very little strength and everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. If I tried to speed up my balance went slightly awry, which made me want to slow down even more.

I eventually made it to sitting position and very slowly swung my leaden legs to the floor. The next task was to put on a jacket. It seemed to take forever. One arm went in relatively easily but my reduced mobility meant the second was harder and then I couldn’t see to do the zip up properly. Walking was even more of an effort and I soon began to shuffle, while handling money in a nearby cafe entailed sight and dexterity difficulties. I was surprised by how glad I was to have carer Aurica Tripon assisting me on the walk back from the cafe, as half an hour or wearing the suit took its toll on my physical resilience and confidence in my own abilities.

But I was even more surprised by the thing I found the most difficult about wearing the GERT suit: hearing loss. I hated the fact that I could no longer hear the birds singing and all the background noises of everyday busy-ness that make you feel connected to something more than yourself.

Dinu told me the company decided to buy it’s own £1,500 suit (they can cost up to £3,000 for a complete package of ‘ageing’ components) after trying one on a training day.

“The hardest thing in this industry is to put yourself in the shoes of the client and understand how difficult it is to do the most simple of tasks,” he said. “This suit gives an insight that theoretical training can’t offer. It represents our average client, who is elderly and needs assistance to continue living in their own home.”

The company hopes that once staff have been trained using the suit, clients’ relatives can also be offered the chance to experience something of their loved ones’ everyday difficulties by trying it on too.

“It’s really easy to become frustrated with someone when you don’t really understand why they are, in your eyes, so slow,” says Dinu. “This will help put things in perspective.”

Thankfully, I was able to reverse the ageing experience and return to my normality just by taking off the GERT suit. Those really afflicted by age-related difficulties are not so lucky.