A specially designed bodysuit enables users to experience what it feels like to have limited mobility, sight issues and hearing problems, helping product designers to create age-friendly products and services as a result
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To date, the GERT age-simulation suit from the German design agency Produkt + Projekt has been used in the UK mainly for the training of medical staff. In the last two years, several medical universities and many NHS hospitals have acquired the age-simulation suit.

Hospital employees must deal with an increasing number of elderly patients and, in order to be able to better understand their needs and develop empathy, they put themselves in the shoes of the elderly patients by using the age-simulation suit.

Gaining a better understanding of the needs of the older generation is not only useful for healthcare employees, but also for people that deal with the elderly in trade and services. For example, Barclays Bank uses the age-simulation suit to train its service employees. There have been numerous media reports about this. In industry, a still small number of British companies are using the GERT ageing suit for product development. GERT, which stands for GERontological Test suit, had actually been created for this purpose.

Wolfgang Moll, the German inventor of the suit, is a designer/ergonomist and owner of Produkt + Projekt. He studied industrial design with a focus on ergonomics at the University of Essen in North Rhine-Westphalia. In the course of his studies, he became interested in the needs of elderly and disabled users. After his studies, he spent nearly 10 years in a design agency working for the automotive industry, most recently as a senior designer. Among other things, he designed operating, display and assistance systems for nearly all of the major German automotive manufacturers, especially for the more upscale vehicle classes.

Even during this time, he always considered the older population, especially since nearly all premium-class vehicles are bought by people over 50. Unfortunately, the marketing of automobiles is still very much geared towards the youthful image of the vehicles and Moll was not always able to take into account the needs of older car buyers in his designs. In some cases, there were also technical restrictions that hindered age-friendly design.

When the designer started his own business in 2005, he decided that he would focus on demographic change and, thus, the increasing number of older consumers. However, in the acquisition of industrial projects, he found out that the corporate decision-makers did not realise the potential and associated opportunities of designing products for older people. Neither did they know how to design products that were user-friendly even for elderly and disabled users, in terms of ‘design for all’.

DESIGN FOR ALL 

Even when Produkt + Projekt projects had already started, there were many discussions with engineers who did not fully understand the improvements proposed by Moll. The designer wanted them to test products from the perspective of elderly users and also he wanted to do this himself – but he was only in his mid 40s and thus too young to be able to fully ‘experience’ the products from an older person’s point of view.

However, he remembered reports that he had read about age-simulation suits used by Ford and Nissan. He wanted to own such a suit, which he could use to test his projects and even use for project acquisition.

The idea to make a suit that simulates the changes associated with ageing was not new; over the years, several companies and organisations have used aids that make it possible to experience ageing-associated physical limitations. These self-made tools often appeared rather simple and subjective. For example, glasses are scratched and smeared with petroleum jelly in order to simulate reduced vision, or bandages are used to restrict the mobility of the joints. In the medical field, there were instructions available about how simple aids could be used to simulate ageing.

In the course of his research, Moll discovered more professional age-simulation suits, but none of the suits available for purchase were able to meet his requirements. He thought it important for an ageing suit to be grounded in scientific research as well as having a practical use. There was nothing left but to develop his own age-simulation suit to meet his particular needs. He defined that the suit should only simulate scientifically validated healthy ageing in the sensorimotor region.

These are:

  • Opacity of the eye lens;
  • Narrowing of the visual field;
  • High-frequency hearing loss;
  • Head mobility restrictions;
  • Joint stiffness;
  • Loss of strength;
  • Reduced grip ability;
  • Reduced co-ordination skills.

SEPARATE COMPONENTS 

For practical use, it was important for the suit to consist of separate components that could be fitted over the clothing of the test subjects. The suit was thus given a modular design. For the individual components, scalability was also necessary, particularly with respect to weight modules, which simulate declining strength. It is important to work with weights and not with elastic bands or the like. Only with additional weight is it possible to empathise with the increased cardiovascular strain during physical activity, e.g. climbing stairs.

The modular system has two crucial advantages. The inhibition threshold to put on an age-simulation suit (especially for members of the management) is lower when the individual parts can be tried on. In addition, components that simulate healthy ageing may also be exchanged for components that simulate illnesses or disabilities.

The development could only be done through ‘trial and error’. After some experimentation, a model that fully met the requirements was realised in 2009. To obtain a scientific peer review, Moll presented this to the renowned Network Aging Research and the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Heidelberg. Both organisations were impressed with the results and requested two additional suits for their respective institutes. In 2010, additional requests from companies such as Daimler, BMW and Airbus led to an initial small series, which is soon to be followed by an ongoing serial production.

The GERT age-simulation suit has since been supplemented with additional accessories that simulate the pathological side effects of ageing:

  • The tremor simulator simulates trembling of the hands;
  • A set of six simulation glasses simulates common visual disorders;
  • Overshoes simulate an unsteady gait that often occurs with old age;
  • Reinforced knee braces simulate greater mobility restriction of the knees;
  • The hemiparesis simulator simulates a unilateral paralysis e.g. caused by a stroke.

Because many universities use the age-simulation suit for educational purposes, it was obvious that some of them also conducted scientific evaluations of the suit. Many studies demonstrating the realism of the simulation have since been published. Here, it is beneficial that the development is based on scientific knowledge of the ageing process.

It was confirmed that the GERT age-simulation suit with a total weight of approximately 20 kg (with a complete weight load) simulates and age increase of 30-40 years. One thing is clear: ageing is a heterogeneous process that varies considerably between individuals. Therefore, the suit cannot simulate a defined age, but rather an age increase based on the user’s age and fitness level.

The GERT suit is a product that was never intended as such. Moll originally wanted to use the age-simulation suit as a single copy for his own work as a product developer. Of course, he is quite pleased that others can now successfully implement the age-simulation suit to help the world adapt to demographic changes. He intends, therefore, that Produkt + Projekt will continue to offer the GERT suit and the accessories at a reasonable price. Additional information can be found at www.age-simulation-suit.com.

To see the GERT suit in action, click on the following link on www.theguardian.com: The age-simulation suit: This is what it feels like to be old (c) Guardian News & Media Ltd.

http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Age-1024x806.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Age-300x300.jpgDavid O'RiordanBiohealthcare,United Kingdom
  To date, the GERT age-simulation suit from the German design agency Produkt + Projekt has been used in the UK mainly for the training of medical staff. In the last two years, several medical universities and many NHS hospitals have acquired the age-simulation suit. Hospital employees must deal with an...