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Age suits let students walk in grandad's slippers

Ageing simulation suits letting wearers walk in the shoes of someone 50 years older, are showing future care workers and designers how it feels to be old.

Wearable technology mimicking stroke and ageing is giving London students a powerful immersive experience of old age – cataracts, shakes and stumbles included.

Brunel University London uses a set of four gerontologic test suits, called GERT suits, a stroke suit and tremor simulators to recreate a spectrum of age-related conditions including Parkinson’s.

“Wearing the suit is overwhelming,” said Inclusive Design Research Group Leader Dr Farnaz Nickpour. “The physical effects and exhaustion, you can deal with, but how cut off you feel from the outside world is astounding.”

“I was so busy processing basic tasks that I struggled to manage a conversation.”

Designed to help healthcare professionals empathise with patients, the suits recreate pain, fatigue and movement and sensory impairment. Overshoes dull sensation in the feet, risking falls, while weights and joint straps mimic knee, wrist and elbow stiffness. A neck brace restricts head movement, glasses produce different sight problems such as tunnel vision, macular degeneration and cataracts and headphones simulate deafness.

Students wear the suits to do everyday things such as buy a coffee or play cards.

“These difficulties are something that you can’t fully convey through classroom teaching” said rehab psychology expert Will Young. “The suits give students first-hand experience of what frailty feels like.”

The sense of social isolation is shocking, Will said. “They felt a real inability to socialise and talk to each other. Some walk past their friends without saying hello because they can’t hear them or it is too much effort to respond. One student got quite upset when she realised her elderly neighbour was not, as she assumed, just being rude.”

Brunel's Ageing Studies Theme is using the £6,000 kit with students across design and clinical studies departments, encouraging interdisciplinary learning and innovation.