LIANE HANSEN, host:
Twenty-something engineers now design products for aging baby boomers, but it's hard for them to feel the aches and limitations of a 75-year-old. So, the AgeLab at MIT has come up with a special suit that does just that.
While reporting her recent series on aging, NPR's Jennifer Ludden tried it on.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: OK, I'm 40-something - no spring chicken. But, hey, if the crosswalk light is blinking, I can still dash across the street, no problem.
Ms. ROZANNE PULEO (Researcher, MIT): Step in. You can take your shoes off.
LUDDEN: Until, that is, Rozanne Puleo starts strapping me into her age suit. I pull a harness around my waist, then Puleo, a researcher at MIT, starts attaching things to it.
Ms. PULEO: So, this piece will connect right to your back and it will stretch down to the bottom of the shoes, so it will limit your hip flexion.
LUDDEN: That means no more sprinting. Polio also attaches stretchy rubber bands to restrict my arms, kneepads and Velcro wrist braces...
(Soundbite of Velcro ripping)
LUDDEN: ...gloves to lessen sensation in my fingers. Everything on this suit is carefully calibrated to mimic the loss of function that happens as we age. Finally, there's a hard hat to clip more things onto.
Ms. PULEO: We attach the bungee cords to the Velcro straps on the helmet...
LUDDEN: Oh, no. I'm not going to be able to do anything.
Ms. PULEO: ...and then you feel - so, this is going to attach here.
LUDDEN: And then I feel like this was a bad idea. At this point, it's work just to stand up straight. And to walk, Puleo has me in Croc sandals with bits of rubber foam on the bottom. It's not that I've lost my balance.
Ms. PULEO: But the act of having to balance makes you more fatigued, makes you more tired.
LUDDEN: Researchers here say, of course, baby boomers aren't the first ones to get old. But they're the first to demand some product or service to make the process easier, and that's the AgeLab's mission. Puleo has outfitted grad students in this age suit and taken them grocery shopping.
Ms. PULEO: And what we found was a lot of the low-sugar, low-sodium items were either at the top of the shelf or at the bottom of the shelf, not in a place where an older adult would have the easiest time locating.
LUDDEN: Sure enough, when I step over to the AgeLab's mock grocery store, those Ritz crackers way up on the top shelf do not seem worth the trouble.
Joseph Coughlin heads the AgeLab and he wants to spread this kind of aha moment not just to grocery chains but also product designers and city planners.
Mr. JOSEPH COUGHLIN (AgeLab, MIT): The aha for the 30-year-old that says, wow, this box of cupcakes is hard to open. Wow, getting out of this public transportation system is more difficult than I thought.
LUDDEN: Rozanne Puleo wants those who try on her suit to feel more empathy for seniors. I, for one, have come to appreciate that spring in my step while I still have it.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.