• 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
July asylum applications hit 'all-time record'
An asylum seeker reception centre in Trier. Photo: DPA

July asylum applications hit 'all-time record'

More people applied for asylum in Germany in July than in any previous month on record, the Ministry for Immigration and Refugees announced on Friday. READ  

This Week in History
The 1,000s of Germans massacred after WWII
Germans fleeing from eastern Europe after the Second World War. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The 1,000s of Germans massacred after WWII

Seventy years ago on Friday, a munitions depot exploded in the Czechoslovakian town of Ústí nad Labem. For the thousands of Sudeten Germans who lived in the town, the event was a death sentence. READ  

Minister seeks to rid laws of 'Nazi language'
In the center, Nazi lawyer Roland Freisler, who wrote laws that are partially still in existence today. Photo: German Federal Archive / Wikimedia Commons.

Minister seeks to rid laws of 'Nazi language'

Germany has made great efforts to purge legal system of remnants of Adolf Hitler's regime, but some laws still bear traces of the Nazi past. The Justice Minister wants to change this. READ  

Treason investigation of Netzpolitik halted
Netzpolitik published documents outlining the internal spy agency BfV's spy programmes and budget. Photo: DPA

Treason investigation of Netzpolitik halted

Update: Federal prosecutors announced on Friday they are suspending investigations of treason against 'digital rights' website Netzpolitik for 'the greater good' of upholding freedom of the press. READ  

Newborn baby found in Munich airport toilets
Munich Airport. Photo: DPA

Newborn baby found in Munich airport toilets

A newborn baby was found in a toilet in Munich airport on Thursday. Police so far have no clue as to who or where the mother is. READ  

Brit arrested in Munich for meth smuggling
Photo: BVZ/Zoll

Brit arrested in Munich for meth smuggling

A 50-year-old British woman is being held in custody in Munich on suspicion of attempting to smuggle two kilos of crystal meth out of Munich airport disguised as sweets. READ  

Start-up helps new Berliners slash red tape
Hate waiting in line at the Bürgeramt? There's a company that lets you pay to get the perfect appointment. Photo: DPA.

Start-up helps new Berliners slash red tape

Why waste time jumping through the hoops of German bureaucracy when you can pay someone else to take the hassle off your hands? A new Berlin company is offering to do just that - and it's got city officials fuming in the process. READ  

Michael Jackson shrine may have to beat it
A fan visits the makeshift Michael Jackson memorial in Munich. Photo: DPA.

Michael Jackson shrine may have to beat it

A memorial set up in Germany by some of Michael Jackson's most ardent fans the day after his sudden 2009 death has come under threat in a strangely emotional turf war. READ  

Ai Weiwei in Germany as UK slammed over visa
Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei arrived at Munich airport on Thursday, greeted by his son and son's mother, filmmaker Wang Fen. Photo: DPA.

Ai Weiwei in Germany as UK slammed over visa

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei arrived in Munich on Thursday on his first overseas trip since he was arrested nearly four years ago, after Britain denied him a six-month visa because he did not declare a supposed "criminal conviction" on his application. READ  

'Women-only' parking: sensible or sexist?
Regulations for women's parking spaces differ from state to state across Germany. Photo: JG-NF / Wikimedia Commons.

'Women-only' parking: sensible or sexist?

Frankfurt Airport is one of many places in Germany to offer women their own 'bigger and nicer' parking areas. Is this sensible practice or plain sexist? READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sport
Germany star scores own goal with PR gaffe
Features
'Women-only' parking: sensible or sexist?
Politics
Satire and reality blur in parody party's strife
National
13-year-old boy detained for trying to join Isis
Culture
Berlin restaurant serves up Greek Crisis Menu
Rhineland
Doctor on trial after woman wakes in morgue
Society
Six odd things Germans do in the summer
Sponsored Article
Outsourcing drives Apreel's Europe growth
Society
Police bust kinky Bavarian couple over painful love-making
Politics
Merkel brings Palestinian girl to tears
Hamburg
Amateur archaeologist finds Nazi gold hoard
National
Could Merkel learn a lesson in love from this doppelganger?
Travel
Why you should stay in Germany for the summer holidays
Sport
German press tell Schweinsteiger 'good riddance'
National
Hamburg gets a bouncing 100kg baby girl
Society
In North Germany, money sometimes DOES grow on trees
National
Hero mechanics stop Bavaria shooting spree
International
Denmark says that border controls are coming
National
Did hackers take control of German missile battery?
Politics
Munich gives gay pride green light
Business & Money
Berlin rent controls hit prices hard
National
Fighting to breastfeed in public without shame
Society
Ice cream for dogs 'gobbled up in one gulp'
Education
Are hotpants a feminist issue?
Rhineland
Lion cub reunited with mother
National
How the heatwave is cracking Germany's Autobahns
International
Why the French are more sympathetic to Greece than the Germans
Sponsored Article
Crans-Montana: International expat hub
Gallery
Police seize pensioner's WW2 heavy weapons haul
National
How to survive the Europe-wide heatwave
Sport
Is Schweini already out of the door at Bayern?
Politics
How German media shaped the Greece crisis
National
Car assembly robot crushes worker at Volkswagen
Rhineland
Weathermen red-faced over heatwave snow warning
Society
An eye for an eye? Mum protects child in playground with pepperspray
National
As it happened: Queen Elizabeth's final day in Germany
National
As it happened: Queen Elizabeth's second day in Germany
National
Queen Elizabeth II's first day in Germany - as it happened
National
Bus passengers tell fake racists where to get off
Politics
What's really in the Queen's handbag?
National
Germans say USA doesn't respect freedom
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

7,212
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd