What does aging feel like?

By Andria Cowan Molyneaux

As a professional designer I have always been intrigued by the aging process and its effect on residential design. My earliest experience of this came when I was asked to design a master bathroom for a middle-aged client who suffered from mobility issues caused by a fused hip. The client was emphatic about not having a “disabled” washroom and I was determined to give her what she wanted even if it meant going back to school.

As I studied to become a certified aging in place specialist I found myself asking the question “what would aging feel like and how could I learn from this to better serve my clients’ needs?” To answer these questions I needed to do go beyond the classroom and to step into a futuristic-looking suit that would help me to feel the impact of old age while doing mundane tasks around the house. To do so I visited Blum Canada to find out more about their age simulator suit called Age Explorer.

Developed in Germany by doctors geriatric researchers and the Meyer-Hentschel Institute the Age Explorer suit helps the research and development team at Blum Canada to simulate the physical limitations caused by the aging process and to create products that are forward thinking. With that being said little did I know that by putting the suit on that I would age over 20 years in just two hours; a frightening thought!

During my visit to Blum Canada my instructor Lucy Traetto a specialist in certified aging in place and dynamic space briefed me on the key features of the suit that would age me so quickly. For example the suit is topstitched to make it difficult to move the arms upward. Bindings are added to limit the motion of the elbow and knee joints. Weights are attached directly to the arm and leg muscles to simulate decreased muscle strength. Headphones are added to mimic hearing loss glasses to simulate failing eyesight and a yellow Plexiglas visor to limit the field of vision and simulate glaucoma.

“Enough” I hear you say! Sadly there was one more trick up Lucy’s sleeve. With an unnerving smile she brought out the final torture item from the Age Explorer tool kit special gloves lined with Velcro that imitates arthritis and makes it painful to grasp and open objects. With my mind racing Lucy then helped me to put on the suit and guided me gingerly to their kitchen showroom. My journey to age 20 years had begun providing me with an unforgettable experience that would shape my commitment to create spaces respectful of my client’s wish to age in place.

With a clipboard in hand Lucy directed me to perform three basic tasks which would be considered easy for an able bodied person. First she asked me to open a plastic water bottle. Then she asked me to remove some change from a wallet and to tell her how much money I had in my hand. Lucy then asked me to bend down and remove a pot in the cupboard and place it on the stove. Finally she asked me to reach a glass on the shelf. Seems easy doesn’t it? Not so much!

With the headphones on I struggled to hear Lucy’s basic instructions. I found myself turning to look directly at her face while craning my ears to try and be clear on her instructions. Once I was sure of my task it was painstaking. It hurt to turn and open the bottle lid. It took me minutes to remove the change and count it. I almost fell over trying to locate and remove the pot in the kitchen's lower cabinet shelf and I could not reach beyond the first upper shelf to grab the glass. I felt utterly demoralized with my inability to perform such basic tasks.

Experiencing Blum Canada's Age Explorer suit made me proud to be a certified aging in place specialist and provided me with the vital “aging” context that I would not have had for another 20 to 30 years. Thank you Lucy and Blum Canada for opening my eyes and for helping me to understand the importance of designing aesthetically pleasing physically inspired barrier-free living environments so that my clients can grow old gracefully in their homes.

Andria Cowan Molyneaux is an accredited interior decorator designer and certified aging in place specialist (CAPS) and has been accredited by the Canadian Decorators’ Association (CDECA) and National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Upholding a strict code of ethics Andria is uniquely familiar with the strategies and techniques for designing and building aesthetically pleasing barrier-free living environments. For more information please contact Andria by calling toll free 1-844-414-lake or by visiting www.acm-designs.com or emailing andria@acm-designs.com.