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August 14, 2015

This post is written by one of our Baycrest Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long-Term Care (LRI) summer interns, as part of a reflective series. Read about the interns’ experiences on Twitter by following #LRIinternship2015

As a person who values empathy, I always try to practice the art of “walking in other people’s shoes” to help guide my understanding on the thoughts, opinions and perspectives of others. Although this is a figure of speech, I had the opportunity to literally walk in a frail aging body suit as part of my core learning at Baycrest. As one of ten interns at the Baycrest Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation in Long-Term Care, I had the privilege to participate in an educational simulation by wearing a Sakamoto New Aged Simulation Suit.

I entered the exercise not knowing what to expect – equipped only with prior textbook and observational knowledge of the aging experience and the value of empathy to guide me. Immersing myself in the simulation, I stepped into the one-piece suit with countless fasteners and buckles. Immediately, I felt heavy and immobile; the accumulation of extra weight on the end of my limbs and the added constraints on my joints were already taking a toll. As if this was not enough of a transformation, the research assistant dressed me in gloves and goggles to simulate changes in vision and grip strength. I had not even left my chair before the process had begun; for the first time in my life I was experiencing the effects of frail aging. Within minutes, I started to gain essential knowledge and understanding of what it can be like to be frail.

Throughout the simulation, the individual directing the simulation had both me and my intern colleague executing many tasks. While wearing the suit, we had to fill out a typical medical form, walk down a hallway and participate in a short exercise program. During this experience, I was actively bridging observations and learning acquired from my own life with those arising from the simulation. For example, while walking around Baycrest, I could not believe how my posture was affected, as the suit mirrored the experience of kyphosis. The feeling of being weighed down and stooped over made it extremely challenging for me to look upwards and to either side. I became frustrated when talking to other people and eventually gave up on making eye contact altogether. This was because in order to make eye contact, I had to turn my whole entire body to look at people on either side of me. The amount of physical exertion needed to perform the task was simply not worth making the effort so I remained hunched over for the duration of the exercise. To outside observers, I may have looked withdrawn or uninterested. Meanwhile, this was not the case because the physical constraints were impacting my ability to participate.

This exemplifies one of my many “a-ha” moments during the simulation. I was better able to understand the challenges frail older adults experience when they try to turn their neck or attain an upright posture. Before this experience, I remember questioning why older adults sometimes had to turn their whole upper body instead of simply turning their neck when I was conversing with them. Or why at certain times they chose not to make eye contact when I was talking to them. Now I understood.

 In addition, as much as the physical experience was eye-opening, so was the sensory experience. The impact of simulated cataracts on my vision, brought me to the realization of the challenges that individuals with vision loss experience. I could better understand how an older adult can experience emotional struggles with this loss, as I could feel my own emotions radiating throughout the simulation. Despite a mere 20 minutes spent in the suit, I was surprised that my impaired vision was so frustrating and that it impacted my ability to execute tasks successfully, such as filling out a form. I started giving up on the many tasks altogether. I felt isolated as I was experiencing tunnel vision and unable to completely visually process my environment. In addition, I was not only frustrated with myself, but with others around me. For those who were directing the simulation and not in the aging suits, I felt helpless as they were not accommodating my needs to stop or slow down. As a result, I often was unable to finish tasks in their suggested time frame. I found myself relieved that this was only a simulation and not my actual reality.

Going forward, in terms of reflecting on my practice, I plan on being more mindful of asking older frail adults to perform actions related to mobility, such as standing up, sitting down and transferring. I plan on being more patient and attentive to these needs and not just taking them at face value. This exercise in empathy has caused me to think deeper and as a result, I have already begun to integrate this new understanding into my interactions with frail elders.

-Shannon Coffey, Bachelor of Applied Science, Adult Development and Aging


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