Three years ago, my 91-year-old grandmother spent a couple of days in May attending my college graduation in scorching heat.
On Tuesday, without a peep of complaint, she walked the five long avenue blocks from Radio City Music Hall to my apartment in midtown.
Then she rode the 4 train up to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, found her seat, watched the commencement ceremony, and rode the train back down to the restaurant where our family got lunch, before walking some more.
I gave her credit at the time, but it wasn’t until a few days ago that I finally realised what an accomplishment it was.
I recently visited the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey to check out the Genworth Ageing Experience, a new exhibit from Applied Minds that uses a high-tech exoskeleton to let people feel what life is like at 85 years old.
The idea behind the project, explains Bran Ferren, the company’s co-founder, is to start a dialogue about the perils of ageing, which largely go undiscussed.
In front of a crowd of two dozen kids and their parents, Ferren gives me tunnel vision. I’m wearing a special helmet and Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, and the picture I see goes cloudy. I see his face, but the edges are grey.
Next, he gives me macular degeneration — the cloudiness is now a big grey spot right in the middle of my vision. Already I’m grateful to be young and spry.
Ferren next makes my ears ring. “This is tinnitus,” he tells the audience, and he dials up the volume so it becomes nearly deafening. To make matters worse, he introduces loud chatter as background noise, and I’m totally disoriented. I tell the audience I would never leave the house if this was what my life was like.
Then Ferren whipped out the big guns: speech impediments and physical disabilities.
After setting the microphone in my helmet to a slight delay, so that everything I said hit my own ears slightly later, Ferren effectively gave me dysphasia. It’s a condition that causes people’s coherent thoughts to come out slurred and garbled. As I happily sang along to “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” thinking all was fine, the audience’s laughter told me otherwise.
“You might say, ‘Oh, he’s faking it!'” Ferren says. “Trust me, he’s not.”
The final test, a virtual walk on the beach, was by far the most eye-opening. As a pair of handlers led me onto the treadmill (“Big step, here we go”) and I got to walking, the effect was immediate. I strained just to take a few steps. Ferren alerted the audience to my climbing heart rate, which had risen to 130 beats per minute. I was sweating, and according to Ferren, I’d only gone about five city blocks.
It hit me at that moment just how important an exhibit like the Genworth Ageing Experience really is. For the first time in history, people 65 years and older now outnumber children 5 and younger around the world. Without a clear understanding of how the world’s demographics are shifting, we can’t fully prepare for the change or appreciate its effects once it happens. Stepping into a suit that mimics the real thing might spur to action decades ahead of time.
Now I feel like I have a better sense of the experience of being elderly. It’s not a perfect replication of what it’s like, but it comes much closer — and delivers a much more visceral experience — than any statistics could.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a phone call to make and some very belated thanks to give.