Why is this interesting? - The Gerontology Edition

On design, empathy, and aging

Colin here. I’m frequently astounded by how some places leave all thought or courtesy for the disabled behind. I was leaving the 3 train station at 14th Street this weekend and saw a woman with a cane slowly and deliberately taking everything step-by-step. She politely turned down any assistance from me, but her pace dictated that that set of stairs would take around 10 minutes. Multiply that by the number of subway trips she takes per day and you have a real impedance to normal living. Similarly, some airports, like Heathrow Terminal 3, have gates situated in what seems like a hearty one mile march past security. It’s fine for able-bodied people, but not so good for those getting up in age. And there’s not always a cart or buggy handy for when you need one. It is an important exercise when thinking about environments: how would a disabled person or someone with limited mobility handle this? Is it easy? Or does it require more stress and pain? What is required for dignified movement?

WBUR recently highlighted a suit that causes researchers and designers to age 40 years by simply donning it. 

The so-called GERT suit — short for gerontology, the study of aging — is made by a German company and comprised of weighted Velcro components that attach to the wearer's chest, arms, hands and legs. Then there's a set of hearing loss-inducing headphones, a neck brace, a pair of goggles to simulate vision impairment and, finally, overshoes at the feet, meant to evoke feelings of nerve loss at the extremities.

It doesn’t just limit the physical mobility, but also sight and sound. For researchers designing a new space, it is a tool that helps them literally walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s an incredibly important idea. 

Why is this interesting? 

The internet is awash with talk of empathy. There’s even a new wine brand with the name (tagline: “Great wine is too expensive. We’re fixing that.”). But this type of action and activity goes beyond lip service, and actually offers designers a physical burden that can help them truly understand the realities of those who will be navigating the space.

Samantha Flores and Mike Steiner with the Dallas-based architecture firm Corgan each donned the suit — which weighs about 30 pounds and adds four simulated decades — in public settings like an airport to better understand the challenges elderly people face simply moving around.

They say the idea behind the experience is to apply that firsthand understanding to make their building designs more empathetic and accessible.

"One of the things that we really took away from the staff that ran through the scenarios is that having the hearing and the sight losses is really isolating," Steiner tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "So even though I was at the airport [and] I did not have a flight to catch, I couldn't understand half of the announcements. The losses that you have can be a little bit overwhelming."

It’s not just the big things like stairs, escalators, and entry points, it’s also the more subtle elements of a space like the gloss of a floor creating glare and disorientation. The power of this idea isn’t just for architects and those trying to design spaces, rather, anyone who creates something for someone else could stand to take this immersive approach and make better work as a result. (CJN)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)