• Germany's news in English
 

I've been to the future and it really aches

Published: 30 May 2012 15:10 GMT+02:00

When I catch my reflection in a mirror, I look not unlike an astronaut. A stiff, bulky bodysuit covers me from neck to ankle; thick white gloves protect my hands; my head is concealed beneath a sturdy silver helmet. A visor is secured over my eyes: everything is covered.

Under the suit I am also wearing a vest that is rigid and heavy like a Kevlar jacket, and straps that fasten tightly over my knees and ankles. As I extend one tightly swaddled leg in front of the other, I can’t help but imagine that I am beginning the solemn walk towards some distant launch-pad. But this is not space travel. This, in its own way, is time travel.

My futuristic ensemble was actually the Age Man Suit, a garment that simulates the physical effects of ageing. In a small room of Berlin’s Evangelical Geriatrics Centre, I experienced the real final frontier: old age.

"The suit mimics the feeling of being roughly 75 years old," geriatrist Dr Rahel Eckardt said. At least, that’s what I think she said – the helmet contains ear-defenders that impaired my hearing.

A litany of new complaints

This was just one of a litany of other newly acquired complaints which included reduced vision courtesy of the yellow visor that replicated the effect of cataracts; diminished dexterity from the thick, cumbersome gloves; and, legacy of my weighted limbs and torso, a suddenly alien heaviness that I could only faintly compare to the sensation of taking to a pool fully-clothed for a swim test.

The unfamiliar disconnect between mind and body was particularly troubling; it was almost as if I had to consciously will parts of my body into motion. One small step for man was suddenly one giant feat of manoeuvre.

But it was not just my body which had to come to terms with the effects of the suit.

Eckardt guided me through a range of everyday tasks that would normally be accomplished without conscious effort – picking coins up off the floor, removing tablets from a blister pack, even telling two differently coloured shirts apart.

My feelings of frustration, helplessness and indignity built with surprising rapidity, as my usually sharp 21-year-old faculties were thwarted by creaking joints, fumbling fingers and treacherous eyesight.

For me the experience was extraordinary but for Eckardt transforming sprightly young people into slower, older ones is all in a day’s work. The Age Man Suit, she said, has been as much a part of her equipment as scrubs and a stethoscope since 2004. The question of why has approximately 16.8 million answers.

The future belongs to the old

That figure represents the number of Germans older than 65 – the United Nations says that at 20.6 percent of the population, only Monaco and Japan boast a greater proportion of pensionable citizens.

It may be counter-intuitive to imagine anyone but the younger generation at the forefront of societal changes – but in Germany the fastest-growing population group is the over-85s. Welcome to the developed world in the 21st century, where the future belongs to the old.

When Eckardt completed her medical studies at Berlin’s Free University in the mid-90s, geriatrics as a subject did not even exist. For the new generation of aspiring doctors, such a gap in the syllabus is unthinkable.

Already 14 percent of hospital patients are over 80, and this figure will rise to more than 20 percent by 2030 according to the Federal Statistics Office.

This represents a slow-motion epidemic which will challenge every aspect of medical care – yet because it is not dramatic or glamorous, it is not attracting new doctors.

The dreams of aspiring medics are simply not often filled with ideas of day-to-day management of long-term conditions like dementia and arthritis.

Harnessing empathy

Few of the wide-eyed white-coated ingénues who come under Eckardt’s tutelage in the ninth semester of their studies at Berlin’s Charité teaching hospital will have considered a career in their mentor’s branch. But there is one trump card remaining to Eckardt and her colleagues – I was in it.

The Age Man Suit aims to harness the instinct that will have brought many medical students this far down their vocational path – empathy. The doctors of the future may not be able to walk a mile in the shoes of their prospective senior patients, but a short creaky walk across the floor and a slow, difficult encounter with stairs creates understanding.

Naturally the session with the Age Man Suit was not entirely serious in tone: in their prematurely superannuated guise, my fellow initiates attracted raucous laughter and cries of, "Over here, Grandpa!" from their assembled cohorts.

But it was interesting to note that most of the derision came from those who had not yet tried on the suit; the others were rather more pensive. One even said he found the experience "depressing".

My ten minutes was soon up, and Eckardt zipped me out of the suit and removed my helmet to bring me back from the future.

The outfit was developed by Gundolf Meyer-Hentschel in the 1980s and is still manufactured by the company that bears his name. As well as its use in the training of medical students, the suit is also frequently employed by industrial designers seeking to better tailor their products to older clients, and has even been worn by actors in order to get into character for a play.

All would testify to the validity of Meyer-Hentschel’s original mission statement: "Things that people have not yet lived through can only be understood through personal experience."

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

20:12 May 30, 2012 by Englishted
Give it to the politicians who say everyone can work longer ,half the laboring class are dead before they retire now never mind when it goes up.
08:55 May 31, 2012 by nomdeplum
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
14:35 May 31, 2012 by Sastry.M
Let the medical profession keep up the Oath of Hippocrates and help people to live up to that proclaimed painful age freeing them presently from pain and disease!
19:40 June 8, 2012 by raandy
The suit is temporary and would not reflect how all older people feel.

Getting old is not for sissies.
Today's headlines
At last, Germany has a new Top Model
Vanessa is over the moon. Photo:DPA

At last, Germany has a new Top Model

Everyone can breath easily again. Despite a delay of two weeks due to a bomb threat, Heidi Klum has finally been able to choose Germany’s next top model - a 19-year-old from her own home town. READ  

Steinmeier: corruption poisons football
Steinmeier had harsh words for FIFA. Photo:DPA

Steinmeier: corruption poisons football

Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Thursday that if world football can't clear up "poisonous" corruption, state bodies need to step in, amid a graft scandal engulfing governing body FIFA. READ  

Greece eclipses G7 meeting in Dresden
G7 finance ministers in Dresden. Photo: DPA

Greece eclipses G7 meeting in Dresden

Debt-wracked Greece's battle to hammer out a deal with its creditors dominated a meeting of finance ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations in Dresden on Thursday, with officials insisting much work still lay ahead. READ  

EU investigates Germany over airport security
Photo: DPA

EU investigates Germany over airport security

The European Commission said on Thursday that it had referred Germany to the EU Court of Justice for failing to regularly check up on its airport security measures at some airports. READ  

Germans want to keep their hands on cash
Germans still trust cash over other forms of payment. Photo: DPA

Germans want to keep their hands on cash

Confirming conservative stereotypes, Germans have come out strongly in favour of sticking to hard cash in conducting transactions, a survey published on Thursday showed. READ  

This week in history
Fassbinder: New German Film's Enfant Terrible
Rainer Fassbinder on set in 1977. Photo: DPA

Fassbinder: New German Film's Enfant Terrible

On Sunday May 31st, Rainer Weiner Fassbinder, one of the most influential German film directors, would have turned 70 - had it not been for his death at the age of 37 in 1982. The Local takes a look back at the life and work of the enfant terrible of New German Cinema. READ  

Cool caps reduce hair loss during chemo
Photo: DPA

Cool caps reduce hair loss during chemo

German scientists are trialling a special scalp-cooling cap which helps reduce hair loss for cancer patients going through chemotherapy. READ  

Industry: 'doped' growth boosting economy
A man assembling food processors in a Wuppertal factory. Photo: DPA

Industry: 'doped' growth boosting economy

The German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) warned on Thursday that a fresh burst of economic confidence might be unfounded, even as they raised their growth projections for 2015. READ  

Slow-moving fighter jet blocks Autobahn traffic
A Eurofighter jet stopped up traffic on Thursday because it was so wide. Photo: DPA.

Slow-moving fighter jet blocks Autobahn traffic

A damaged Eurofighter plane being pulled by a truck along the autobahn was so wide that it blocked three lanes of traffic on its way to being repaired in Bavaria on Thursday, drawing the ire of fellow drivers. READ  

Right-wing leader suffers restaurant attack
AfD co-leader Frauke Petry. Photo: DPA

Right-wing leader suffers restaurant attack

Frauke Petry, co-leader of Alternative for Germany (AfD), was attacked by masked assailants while eating in a restaurant on Wednesday evening. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Travel
Why the train strike is bad for passengers and workers
National
Meet Germany's Eurovision hope
Business & Money
Is 2015 a new moment for jobsharing?
Features
How the LGBT rights movement was born in Germany
National
Why you don't make bomb jokes at the airport
National
Why Germany needs a little less tipple
National
Who Germans and Americans trust... and don't
Politics
What the UK election means for Germany
National
Why Germany is great for mums
Features
The Germans with GI dads
Five ways Germany falls short on gay rights
Travel
Giant tortoise found riding Munich rail
National
FCK CPS? A-OK with court
Politics
Opinion: Brexit's dangers for Germany
Features
Smart kids all want to work for BMW
National
Minister shows off top Denglisch
National
Germany's 'other genocide' in Africa
National
Arms firms get a 'must do better' mark on ethics
Sport
Bayern's anticlimactic 25th Bundesliga win
Politics
A Greek learning politics in Germany
Features
The battle of the "Gates of Berlin"
National
Germany's 'very poor' lobbying record
National
Germany's favourite baby names of 2014
Politics
Merkel's 15 years at the top of German politics
Travel
Lowest of the low: how woman exploited Germanwings crash
Features
Spice up asparagus season with The Local's serving suggestions
Sport
Football and the €30,000 firework
Technology
Why scientists oppose killer robots
National
'Cannibal cop' gets 8 years
National
Which city is Germany's worst for drivers?
Technology
Electrifying 'Ostalgia'
National
Cologne Cathedral returns from space
Pupils mourn lost classmates
National
Freed after 25 years on death row
Shutterstock
Sponsored Article
10 things you didn’t know about Zagreb (and why you should go)
Is your workload 'out of control'? You're not alone...
Sponsored Article
What expat parents should ask before choosing a school
Features
Paddy's Day, Berlin style
National
Why east Germans are happy to get it on on camera
National
Uplifting thoughts to get you through the last week of winter
National
What would you do with a 250-year-old pretzel?
National
Who wants the Olympics more - Hamburg or Berlin?
Features
Just why is the German flag Schwarz, Rot, Gold?
Business & Money
Getting German workers and bosses thinking positive
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

6,698
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd