• Germany edition
 
I've been to the future and it really aches
A fellow time-traveller in the suit. Photo: Evangelical Geriatrics Centre

I've been to the future and it really aches

Published: 30 May 2012 15:10 GMT+02:00
Updated: 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
Expats reveal another side of Berlin Wall
Photo: Paul Sullivan

Expats reveal another side of Berlin Wall

Two expats who walked the Mauerweg - the 160-kilometre trail that runs the length of the former Berlin Wall - have written a book about forgotten aspects of its past and present. READ  

Karstadt closes six stores to stay afloat
Photo: DPA

Karstadt closes six stores to stay afloat

Germany's biggest department store chain Karstadt will close at least six stores, putting around 2,000 jobs at risk, in a drastic bid by its new boss to return it to profit. READ  

Quiz
How well do you know Germany?
Photos: DPA/Shutterstock

How well do you know Germany?

Do you know your Saxony facts from your Saxony-Anhalt ones? Test your knowledge of Germany's federal states in The Local's quiz. READ  

Climate chief hails Bonn greenhouse gas deal
Pollution from a coal-fired power station in Frimmersdorf, North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: DPA

Climate chief hails Bonn greenhouse gas deal

The UN's climate chief hailed a European agreement in Bonn on greenhouse gases on Friday as providing "valuable momentum" for a world pact to be inked in Paris next year. READ  

Germany gets €780m EU rebate for poor growth
Photo: DPA

Germany gets €780m EU rebate for poor growth

Germany will get an early Christmas present of around €779 million from the EU, thanks to weaker than expected GDP growth. READ  

Stay inside after blast, Ludwigshafen told
Photo: DPA

Stay inside after blast, Ludwigshafen told

It will take several days to find out what caused a massive explosion on Thursday which rocked a town on the Rhine, killing a builder and injuring 26 others. READ  

German helicopter fleet 'not fit for Nato'
An NH90 helicopter. Photo: DPA

German helicopter fleet 'not fit for Nato'

Germany's fleet of NH90 helicopters is undergoing engineering checks after one of them suffered a serious engine failure, in the latest blow to the country's military capabilities. READ  

Ex-boss of Berlin Airport farce gets €1.2m
Rainer Schwarz at a court hearing in September into the case. Photo: DPA

Ex-boss of Berlin Airport farce gets €1.2m

The man who was blamed for Berlin's miserable attempt to build a new airport must be paid more than €1 million - after being fired. READ  

Steinmeier challenges UN over Isis gas reports
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Kurds watching the attack on Kobane. Photo: DPA

Steinmeier challenges UN over Isis gas reports

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier pressed UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon to bring possible poison gas use by Isis in Iraq before the Security Council. READ  

Spring back in German consumers' step?
Photo: DPA

Spring back in German consumers' step?

Update: Consumer confidence in Germany has stopped falling, as households appear to be no longer fazed by concerns about the economic fallout from geopolitical crises, a new poll found on Friday. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Photo: DPA
Politics
Satirist lives the dream on EU gravy train
Photo: DPA
Gallery
PHOTOS: Huge explosion rocks Ludwigshafen
Photo: DPA/Shutterstock
Gallery
Which high school cliche is your German city?
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Storm hits southern Germany
Sponsored Article
An international school unlike any other : School on the Rhine
Photo: Fitzpatrick family
Society
'We still don't know what happened to Matthew'
Photo: Mariana Schroeder
Munich
Special Report: Hope and chaos at Munich's refugee shelters
Photo: DPA
Culture
Can you top our history quiz leaderboard?
Photo: DPA/Shutterstock
Gallery
11 things Germans are afraid of...
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Sponsored Article
Bilingual education from nursery to graduation at Phorms
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

3,533
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd