Senior’s body suit sensitizes youth to aging reality

Janis Sternhill, Coordinator, Volunteer Services, BaycrestMichael Kesterton’s “Social Studies” column in The Globe and Mail on Nov. 3 described AGNES, a full-body suit developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that sensitizes the wearer to the physical challenges that come with aging. AGNES is short for Age Gain Now Empathy System. Put on the suit and you will experience instantly what it’s like to walk in a frail elderly person’s body. Plastic bands restrict movement, bulky shoes make your gait unsteady, foggy glasses impair your vision, harnesses make your body hunch over, and gloves impair dexterity in your hands and fingers.

In my role as coordinator of Volunteer Services at Toronto’s Baycrest, I oversee an orientation day that helps to sensitize our youth volunteers to the physical challenges many seniors experience. It’s just one component of a vibrant youth volunteer program Baycrest offers every summer for those 13 to 24 years of age. In the “Sensory Deprivation” module, volunteers put on different types of low tech gear, including shoe boxes over their shoes, safety goggles with obstructive tape on them mimicking visual impairment, and gardening gloves to simulate what it feels like to perform common daily living activities with arthritic hands. This latter experience hits home when they are asked to fasten a button shirt while wearing the cumbersome gloves. The volunteers walk approximately seven metres in their restrictive gear to a table with a phone on it, try to read a phone number and then attempt to push the numeric key pad. They also experience what it’s like to have hearing loss by trying to decipher information being broadcast to them through a muffled speaker system.

It is an enlightening experience for the young generation! At first there is a lot of giggling until they realize that these physical restrictions are a permanent reality for many seniors. Kelly Rose, a recreationist for Baycrest who developed the workshop, watches the young volunteers become frustrated when they can’t do the tasks as quickly as they are used to.

The youth say that a highpoint of their orientation day is watching a presentation by the “Voices of Baycrest”, a theatrical troupe made up of seniors who live at the Terraces of Baycrest. Shawn Fremeth, a social worker, helps the troupe write, direct and act in their own skits. The vignettes highlight the social challenges seniors face when moving into a retirement residence. Many go through the same “new kid on the block” unease that teens experience when moving to a new school. It often takes time to make new friends and feel comfortable in their new environment. Not surprisingly, there is a very spirited discussion after the skits between the young audience and senior actors, and a wonderful camaraderie develops between the two generations.

If you are interested in enrolling as a summer youth volunteer at Baycrest, please contact me (Janis Sternhill) at 416-785-2500, ext.2575.