I Aged 40 Years In A Minute

I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what it will be like to get older. Frankly, I'm usually already depressed enough about my present life; bringing some kind of abstract, distant future — where I both look and feel like a dried apple core that had been left out on a radiator for a few days — into the conversation seems both unkind and unnecessary. Also like most of us, I have a secret: I believe that, although I know intellectually that time comes for all men, I personally will never get old, just because I would really prefer not to. I'm not obsessed with actively trying to stave off the horrors of aging through an intensive regimen of vinyasa flow yoga and powders endorsed by Gwyneth Paltrow or anything; I just kind of believe that my body and mind will always stay the way they are now because, you know...aging seems very uncool.

And despite being in my early thirties — a life phase that I have heard is a popular time for folks to start tackling the bitter realities of time and mortality — I've personally been pretty good at blocking it all out (and, if need be, telling myself that I'll probably have died in an environmental catastrophe long before my lower lumbar starts hurting). That is, until the day earlier this month when, in a moment of either great hubris or naïveté, I ventured down to New Jersey's Liberty Science Center and let myself be strapped into an exoskeleton that let me physically experience what it's like to suffer from various aging-related health problems. In front of a crowd. And no, I have not quite been the same since.

To deal with the exoskeleton in the room: yup, I tried on a robotic suit designed to help wearers understand what it's physically like to experience all sorts of problems that afflict older people, from glaucoma to arthritis to having a bum hip — basically, it lets you feel some of the worst physical parts of 40 years of aging, in a few brief minutes. It's called the R70i Aging Suit, and it was built in a collaboration between the insurance company Genworth Financial and the technology, design, and engineering firm Applied Minds.

Bran Ferren, the co-chairman of Applied Minds and designer behind the suit, has a background that includes time as the president of Research and Development at Walt Disney's Imagineering, as well as years designing visual effects for films, theater, and arena rock shows (he's won an Oscar, collaborated with eternally cool musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, and developed concert effects for David Bowie and Pink Floyd).

Even when viewed from a distance, the suit seems like a hybrid of all those experiences — it looks educational yet cool, futuristic yet vaguely threatening, and is covered in buttons that glow in an extremely intimidating and high-tech-ish fashion. Though I had read the press materials, I had expected, I don't know, a pair of robotic snow boots that would make me limp or something. But this looked more like the Iron Man suit.

However, from the moment that Applied Minds staff members began strapping me into it, minutes before I met Ferren on stage to demonstrate the suit for a crowd of visitors to the Science Center, I realized that it was more like a reverse Iron Man suit. A series of mechanisms on the exoskeleton allow it to mimic a variety of physical issues with a touch of the exhibit leader's button: it can lock up your joints to give you a taste of arthritis, or use virtual reality feeds tucked into the goggles to make you feel like your vision is going.

As the staff members worked on me like I was a stock car at a pit stop, my calves felt weaker and weaker. I took their offers to lean on their shoulders (and reassurances that no one would let me fall over) a bit more seriously. I'd only been elderly for a few minutes, and I was already desperate for a nap.

Even before a single button was pushed, I felt exhausted. To begin with, the suit is large and weighs 40 pounds (a load partially intended to duplicate the weight most of us gain as we age). At 5'3", I barely made the physical cut-off for wearing it, and simply standing still with all the machinery on my back was a bit difficult. And since your legs are secured to the suit with straps, you can't walk freely under the weight, like you would with a heavy backpack; your every movement is hampered by the suit. The suit doesn't replicate a specific age — though the diseases and problems it dramatizes tend to strike people anywhere from the 50s to their 80s — but the overall initial effect on one's body is the kind of weakness and bodily stress that can come with aging-related muscle and bone density loss.

As the staff members worked on me like I was a stock car at a pit stop, my calves felt weaker and weaker. I took their offers to lean on their shoulders (and reassurances that no one would let me fall over) a bit more seriously. I'd only been elderly for a few minutes, and I was already desperate for a nap.

The show I was suiting up for is part of a traveling scientific exhibit called the Genworth Aging Experience, which dramatizes some of the physical, psychological, and sociological effects of aging using interactive audio and video displays, with a performance of the suit in action as a centerpiece. The New Jersey stop was one of many on a tour that had taken the suit everywhere from Europe to a massive electronics expo in Las Vegas. Only a handful of visitors who happened to ask at the right time were able to try on the suit at the Science Center each day; for everyone else, the suit could only be viewed from the audience, as a volunteer like me struggled around on stage for their entertainment/enlightenment (if we're gonna be honest, it seemed like it was mostly entertainment; but I've read that optimism can help people cope with aging, so I'm trying to practice).

Once out on stage, only a few inches away from a staff member charged with making sure I didn't tip over, Ferren used me to present the agonies of aging to the crowd, going through everything from cataracts to muscle weakness. As the show began, we started with the problems that can happen to one's head — hearing loss, vision problems, degenerative speech disorders. Video screens behind me showed the audience what I was seeing through my goggles; speakers showed them how things sounded through my high-tech earpiece.

But I doubted seeing it on a screen was the same as struggling to stand up in this strange robotic suit, watching my vision winnow down to a pinprick as Ferren entered a sequence intended to replicate the experience of glaucoma. A low ringing resonated in my ears, which Ferren said was tinnitus — modeled on the very same kind that he experiences. Frankly, by this point, I had already had enough: my calves were shaking under the weight that the suit, and I could barely follow Ferren's prompts to talk to the crowd about how it felt to see things through a glaze of virtual reality cataracts. The crowd, whom I could barely make out through my goggles, seemed to absorbed in Ferren's talk, and did not notice the low-grade existential meltdown I was having next to him.

I thought about my father, who's about 30 years older than me. In my mind, he's still the man who can casually pop a five-year-old me onto his shoulders so that I can see a parade go by, the man strong and vital enough to coach an elementary school soccer team made up of nerdy booger-eaters to a championship win. He's told me he has some aging-related vision issues, but played them down, and I've never thought to ask more. Is this what his life is like, struggling to focus on me through a haze as we talk about movies or the Yankees or his carpentry projects? The thought distracted me, as a sophisticated microphone-earpiece connection in the suit showed what it would be like if I developed a a disorder that caused a delay between my thoughts and my speech. I am sure that the delay between my thoughts and my words was a bit more severe than intended in that moment.

Then, the assistant helps me up onto a treadmill, and things went from bleak to...very bleak.

In front of a video screen displaying an incongruously (perhaps even hatefully) idyllic beach, I was urged to walk on a treadmill as various sensors throughout the suit are activated, hobbling me on one side, then the other, then forcing me to hunch over with weight. At this point, I was barely registering what was happening in the present; all I could think about is how badly I wanted to sit down, how good it would feel when I could, how long I'd be able to sit there until someone told me to get up again. When I realized that the show was over and I'd be allowed to go backstage and change out of the suit, I felt like I'd just been let out of prison. Which, I guess, was kind of accurate.

I had initially assumed that the Genworth Aging Experience was designed to teach young people to take better care of ourselves because, well, I'm a narcissist. And like many narcissists, I believe aging to be an error of the past. People used to age in the past just because they were ignorant, right? They smoked around babies and they voted for Nixon! They basically knew nothing. If only my grandmother had known about kale and ClassPass, she'd be a bouncy 95-year-old who still looked pretty good in jeans instead of, erm, dead for 15 years. Right? Right??

As I talked to Ferren, I realized that this isn't so. Though he told me that the exhibit was created in part to urge young people to do things like turn down the sound on their earbuds or wear sunglasses, the main goal wasn't to remind us all to eat more quinoa. Rather, it's designed to make discussions of aging — both among young people and between generations — feel less taboo. "Part of the problem is you can intellectually think about aging, but its not the same as aging," Ferren told me. And many older people "don't typically have a way to articulate" the ways that aging has made them more physically slow, or put them in constant pain, or made communication harder, " and so they retreat." The suit was built to help give us a common language to discuss these problems.

Ferren told me that in the future, this kind virtual reality-infused exoskeleton may have the power to physically correct the health problems that currently plague the elderly — say, by keeping someone with osteoporosis from falling down — but for now, this suit is an exercise in empathy. "It saddens me that in countries like Japan, they treat old people like valued members of society and cherish them...[but] we tend to discard people...this is a global issue; it's something that effects all of us."

So, sure, healthy living can make things less hard on the body, or stave off some of the worst side effects of aging for a while. But it can't rewrite the script on human existence. Being careful about our glycemic indexes and cardio workouts can't keep us from getting old and dying. I had a surprisingly tough time accepting this. I couldn't believe that, in the end, there was a limit to what you could achieve through moxie and elbow grease. I couldn't believe the cruelty of a world where not every tomorrow held the promise of being better than the day before. "You can either be aware of it earlier or later ... If the result [of trying on the suit is] be depressed, that's the wrong outcome," Ferren said, casually reading my mind. "Let it be empowering." I thought for a moment about whether I could think of a way to let all this information empower me anywhere besides off the side of a cliff.

In the car headed back to work, I tried to select the perfect lunch meal that would undo all the damage I have done to my body in the past, prevent any damage I could possibly do to my body in the future, and also maybe also erase my memory up through 9 p.m. the previous night. After a few minutes, I gave up, and called my dad instead.

Images: Patrick MacLeod