Tons of people sent me an article about the Genworth Aging Experience, a new exhibit at Jersey City’s Liberty Science Center. The article was titled “A Futuristic Suit That Gives You a Taste of Old Age,” and according to reporter Andy Newman, who strapped on the 40-pound suit, the taste is vile.
The article opens with, “What could it possibly be like to be old? The stooped shuffle, the halting speech, the dimming senses.” Newman then describes the dimmed vision, muffled hearing, impaired speech, muscle weakness, and imbalance that the “aging suit” imposes on the human inside. Apparently the virtual experience leaves “entire realms of wretchedness” undescribed, so Newman fills us in: “Comprehensive sagging, internal and external. Pain in places you did not know could hurt. Difficulty urinating. Difficulty not urinating. Watching your friends die off. Watching yourself become irrelevant, an object of pity or puzzlement if acknowledged at all. Still, in just 10 minutes, the aging suit induced a remarkable amount of frustration, depression and hopelessness. If doing even the most basic tasks of daily living is this much trouble, you wonder, why bother?”
This story is biased, lazy, inaccurate, and deeply offensive to the olders whose world it purports to describe. “It made me so angry. How dare they? Would they have an exhibition to show what it feels like to be black? Or disabled? Or retarded? And, of course, their exhibition shows only all the awful ways one can be 85,” retired psychology professor Lynne Schmelter-Davis pointed out in an email.
The exhibition’s stated goal—“to build empathy and awareness”—is commendable. But does donning an “aging suit” actually do that? Actual 85-year-olds, whose experiences are deeply variable and who are navigating the world despite a range of functional limitations, don’t think so. Nor do gerontologists like Jenny Sasser, who writes:
As a long-time anarchic educational gerontologist I have never felt it was legitimate to utilize such simulations. The low-tech precursor to these high-tech suits is smearing petroleum jelly on glasses or stuffing ears with cotton. Such “simulations” create fear and confusion, not understanding and empathy. And if such simulations are used, instructors need to help students process and critically reflect on the experience. But in my experience this rarely occurs. Embodiment is problematic and challenging throughout the life course – I am 49 and have visual and auditory differences because of a genetic disorder. I have some physical limitations because of injuries and accidents earlier in my life course. And yet I live a vibrant engaged life. To associate physical impairment exclusively with old age is dangerous and divisive.
Age scholar Margaret Gullette agrees with Sasser that the exhibit is more likely to confuse or alarm than build empathy, and finds “many other reasons to object. Alienation is likely. Disgust is possible. And what about current reality? Prosthetics have become normalized. I wear glasses, and taking them off doesn’t make the world look greasy or bleary. My husband has a new tooth implant. My mother had a metal hip. Friends have hearing aids; it’s not like wearing ear-plugs. Haven’t we been cyborgs for centuries? It doesn’t make me weird to myself, or to others. Am I going to want to pack it in because I have some aches and pains? Let Andy Newman give up. Not me.”
Geriatric social worker Ann Burack-Weiss, author of “The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life,” took issue in a Letter to the Editor:
When I began as a gerontological social worker 47 years ago, simulation exercises were all the rage. We were given glasses with lenses smeared in Vaseline, cotton balls to stuff in our ears, weights to tie on our ankles. Thus adorned, we were led through our paces: brushing our teeth, making beds, washing dishes and dusting the furniture. This, we were told, is what it feels like to be old. Now that I have become one of “them,” I could not disagree more. It is rare that an old person will have every disability or that those she does have will be of equal intensity. There is an ebb and flow to physical functioning in late life just as there is in earlier years. And we are more than the sum of our bodily woes; we are individuals who meet the challenges of old age in individual ways.
The exhibition not only fails in the empathy-building department, it actually fosters ageism by reinforcing the stereotype that bodies age in the same way and at the same rate. Nothing could be further from the truth, which is why doctors say, “If you’ve seen one eighty-year-old, you’ve seen one eighty-year-old.” Some are bedbound; others run marathons.
Worse yet, the suit equates aging with terrifying, debilitating, physical decline. That’s not by accident. Who’s sponsoring the show? Genworth Financial. How does their website describe the suit? “The Genworth R70i Aging Experience uses state-of-the-art technology to help people step into their future selves”—so far, so good—“and directly experience the physical effects associated with aging. The experience reinforces the importance of thinking about future long term care needs.” What does Genworth sell? Long-term care insurance. “Take a tour of the new age-simulation suit and learn how you can start the conversation with your family.” No thanks. I’ll skip the suit, and have this very different conversation with my family instead.