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Suit imitates elderly person's body, teaches empathy

May 16, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
By 2030, researchers say California will experience an explosive growth in retirement-age residents. By then, about 9 million people will be over the age of 65.

So the Center for Optimal Aging in San Pedro is using empathy to educate the public about what the aging process can be like using a suit that imitates an elderly person's body.

With one foot in, you immediately understand what it's like to depend on people just to get dressed. Tight straps pull you into a stooped position, metal devices pinch your elbows and knees and weights drag on your feet.

"How often have you been in a grocery store and had an elderly person in front of you fumbling in a coin purse and you're looking at your watch and you're impatient because you've gotta be somewhere?" said Anne Lemaire with the Center for Optimal Aging. "You really don't have understanding and empathy in that moment."

Empathy can be eye opening for caregivers. They can learn about obstacles they never knew were obstacles, like organizing medication. Small pills can slip out of your fingers, and it's difficult to see or find things on the floor when you have hazy and limited peripheral vision.

"Once those things are affected it could affect your mood, and it could create depression which could cause you to spiral down," said Susan Geffen with the Center for Optimal Aging. Mental illnesses like depression can make you more vulnerable to chronic disease.

The center's goal is to match seniors with the resources and information they need to meet the challenges of daily living. And wearing the suit can be a key part of the process.

"If you have empathy and you have understanding you can really work better with somebody," said Lamaire.

The Center for Optimal Aging can help families assess their loved one's ability to manage their daily lives including how well they do with nutrition, strength, driving and cognitive performance. They can also get advice from an elder law attorney and find out about free resources in their community.


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