IT’S not easy being gray.
For the first time ever, getting out of a car is no picnic. My back is hunched. And I’m holding on to handrails as I lurch upstairs.
I’m 45. But I feel decades older because I’m wearing an Age Gain Now Empathy System, developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Agnes, they call it.
At first glance, it may look like a mere souped-up jumpsuit. A helmet, attached by cords to a pelvic harness, cramps my neck and spine. Yellow-paned goggles muddy my vision. Plastic bands, running from the harness to each arm, clip my wingspan. Compression knee bands discourage bending. Plastic shoes, with uneven Styrofoam pads for soles, throw off my center of gravity. Layers of surgical gloves make me all thumbs.
The age-empathy suit comes from the M.I.T. AgeLab, where researchers designed Agnes to help product designers and marketers better understand older adults and create innovative products for them. Many industries have traditionally shied away from openly marketing to people 65 and older, viewing them as an unfashionable demographic group that might doom their product with young and hip spenders. But now that Americans are living longer and more actively, a number of companies are recognizing the staying power of the mature market.
“Aging is a multidisciplinary phenomenon, and it requires new tools to look at,” Joseph F. Coughlin, director of AgeLab, tells me, encumbered and fatigued after trying to conduct a round of interviews while wearing Agnes. Viewed through yellow goggles, the bright colors of Professor Coughlin’s bow tie appear dim. “Agnes is one of those tools,” he says.
AgeLab, like a handful of other research centers at universities and companies around the country, develops technologies to help older adults maintain their health, independence and quality of life. Companies come here to understand their target audience or to have their products, policies and services studied.
Often, visitors learn hard truths at AgeLab: many older adults don’t like products, like big-button phones, that telegraph agedness. “The reality is such that you can’t build an old man’s product, because a young man won’t buy it and an old man won’t buy it,” Professor Coughlin says.
The idea is to help companies design and sell age-friendly products — with customizable font size, say, or sound speed — much the way they did with environmentally friendly products. That means offering enticing features and packaging to appeal to a certain demographic without alienating other consumer groups. Baked potato chips are just one example of products that appeal to everybody but skew toward older people. Toothpastes that promise whitening or gum health are another.
Researchers at AgeLab are studying the stress levels of older adults who operate a hands-free parallel-parking system developed by Ford Motor. Although this ultrasonic-assisted system may make backing up easier for older adults who can’t turn their necks to the same degree they once did, the car’s features — like blind-spot detection and a voice-activated audio system — are intended to appeal to all drivers who enjoy smart technology.
“With any luck, if I am successful,” Professor Coughlin says, “retailers won’t know they are putting things on the shelves for older adults.”
THE first of about 76 million baby boomers in the United States turned 65 in January. They are looking forward to a life expectancy that is higher than that of any previous generation.
The number of people 65 and older is expected to more than double worldwide, to about 1.5 billion by 2050 from 523 million last year, according to estimates from the United Nations. That means people 65 and over will soon outnumber children under 5 for the first time ever. As a consequence, many people may have to defer their retirement — or never entirely retire — in order to maintain sustainable incomes.
Many economists view such an exploding population of seventy- and eighty-somethings not as an asset, but as a looming budget crisis. After all, by one estimate, treating dementia worldwide already costs more than $600 billion annually.
“No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances and policy making,” analysts at Standard & Poor’s wrote in a recent report, “as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging.”