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Prototyping the Age-Ready City

At MIT’s AgeLab, researchers work on autonomous wheelchairs, neighborhood design for the cognitively impaired, and a host of other strategies to prepare for the “silver tsunami.”

Miss Daisy, a simulator used to evaluate car technology, cognitive distraction, and the effects of disease and medication on drivers. (MIT AgeLab)

It only takes a few minutes for a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to age me nearly 50 years, but the transformation, at least when it comes to getting around, is fairly complete.

After zipping me into a blue jumpsuit, they strap on bungee cords that make it impossible to move my arms above my shoulders and load me down with about 20 pounds of weights, mimicking the loss of muscle strength that comes by the time a person reaches her eighth or ninth decade. The outfit is accessorized with heavy gloves and specially-adapted Crocs to simulate arthritic hands and unsteady footing.

An intrepid reporter dons the AGNES suit.

“Choose your visual impairment,” says research associate Olivia DaDalt, offering me a selection of goggles labeled “central scotoma,” “impaired acuity,” “tunnel vision.” I go with “diabetic retinopathy,” which reduces my sight to a blotchy blur.

After stumbling down a hallway, I labor to open a stairwell door. A slight wave of panic arises as I think about how easy it would be to lose my footing and tumble down the concrete steps.

Low-tech though it might be, AGNES—an acronym for “Age Gain Now Empathy System”—is one of the most important research tools at MIT’s AgeLab, which since 1999 has been bringing together psychologists, engineers, urban planners, designers, and other specialists to improve the quality of life for people 75 and older.

The lab’s researchers—a good number of whom are actually in their 20s and 30s—use the suit to test products and environments for age-friendliness, wearing AGNES around the lab’s busy Cambridge neighborhood and even down into the subway, which, it turns out, is a much more treacherous environment than the young and spry might believe. Designers, planners, and marketers from the corporate world have also worn AGNES as part of consultations with the AgeLab. The national pharmacy chain CVS, for example, committed to a redesign of its stores after executives realized they were laid out in a way that older adults might find disorienting.

“AGNES has been very useful,” says director Joseph Coughlin, who founded the AgeLab. “It gives you that ‘aha’ moment to feel the friction, the fatigue and the frustration of what it might feel like to be older, with multiple chronic conditions.”

In the United States, thanks to the sheer size of the Baby Boom generation, one in four people will be 60 or older by 2025. The story is similar in most developed countries, as well as in pockets of the developing world. These graying societies will need to confront a daunting range of challenges, everything from a shortage of workers to an increasing number of cognitively- and visually-impaired drivers.

The generations entering middle and old age today will also have to rethink what it means to be old. Fewer will be able to rely on family caregivers, but many also have higher expectations about being able to remain active in their communities.

“The older adults of today—it’s not your grandparents’ old age,” Coughlin says. “They’re more educated, they have more resources, and they’re also not as polite as their parents. They’re going to make this an issue. The Baby Boomers expect to not just live longer, but to live better.”

Coughlin, a transportation planner by training, turned his attention to the needs of older adults (the word “elderly” is now out of fashion) when he was in his 30s. Though at 54 he is still a couple decades away from being part of the AgeLab’s target demographic, in recent years he has become a sort of guru of aging, and his cultivated persona—relentless enthusiasm and a signature bowtie—now turns up everywhere from TED conferences to the Huffington Post, where he writes a regular column on the future of aging.

Joseph F. Coughlin, the director of MIT AgeLab

His message, to businesses, municipalities and the public, is that old age is coming, and we’d better plan for it now.

“As individuals and as policy-makers, we have a difficult time imagining the future,” Coughlin says. “Demographics is destiny, but we’ve done remarkably little to figure out what we’re going to do.”

Some of the research coming out of the AgeLab may help to chip away at the problem of what Coughlin calls “disruptive demographics.” Engineers are working on autonomous robotic wheelchairs and an in-home system to monitor people with dementia. Psychologists and designers work with regular focus groups, asking older people directly how they compensate for the losses that come with age, and what technologies or policies would make their lives better.

Researchers are partnering with colleagues in India and Japan to track the daily lives of older people in multi-generational households and to examine whether making appliances and electronics seem more human helps older people to use them.

For Coughlin, it was the issue of older drivers that first persuaded him to dedicate his career to aging. He is currently working on a book about the politics behind how long people stay behind the wheel, and AgeLab has created a number of tools, including a driving simulator called “Miss Daisy” to study the problem and assess various technological interventions. (The U.S. Department of Transportation is one of the lab’s major funders.)

Driverless cars might be the eventual solution, Coughlin says, but that transition will take longer than the current generation can wait. Older people might also be encouraged to move into big cities, where transit is well-developed, but despite the attractiveness of that idea, Coughlin says it’s small cities and college towns that are likely to see the greatest increase in older people. And these places will need to rethink their entire approach to planning if they are to accommodate their aging populations.

What does an age-friendly community look like? It might be a bit different than a young urban planner would envision. Post-doctoral researcher Katharina König, who arrived at the AgeLab this past summer from Berlin, says older people often have concerns that conflict with the ideals of contemporary urbanism.

“They have a very different kind of view,” she says. “We say, ‘Make the streets narrow to slow down traffic,’ but they’re worried about snow piling up and blocking their paths. We want everyone to ride bikes, but they are afraid of bikes.” (Cyclists seem frighteningly quick and unpredictable, especially to people who came of age in a car-centric society like the United States, she explains.)

Older adults can be apprehensive about narrow streets and cyclists darting out in front of them, according to researcher Katharina König. Good lighting and street-facing businesses can help them feel safer. (Nejc Vesel / Shutterstock.com)

König, who holds a doctorate in psychology, is currently working to analyze, through interviews and GPS tracking, the impact of neighborhood design on the daily lives of older adults, and how cognitive decline and vision impairment affect one’s perception of the environment. While she has found that older people see the city differently than the young, König also believes that making cities work for older people can, if done right, lead to cities that work better for everyone.

Better lighting and more street-facing businesses would be a good start, she says, noting that older people are more concerned about their physical safety than younger people. Meanwhile, more benches and shade would help them cope with the fatigue that often prevents them from walking long distances. “We need to be more aware of how much effort it takes for people to move,” she says. “And if you think about older people, you keep everyone in mind.”

Flashier ideas—like replacing “Meals on Wheels” with drone delivery, or building robots to care for the sick—might get more attention, but much of what we’ll need to cope with what some have called the “silver tsunami” is fairly simple and, in some ways, more difficult.

The key, Coughlin and other AgeLab researchers say, is getting everyone, not only planners and policy-makers, to recognize that anticipating the needs of older people can make life better for all of us. This is where tools like AGNES are useful, and it’s why Coughlin has worked so hard to put the AgeLab’s work before the public eye.

“This is not about taking from the young and giving to the old,” Coughlin says. “The fact of the matter is, with any luck, all of us get to be old. So I don’t want us to be age-friendly. I want us to be age-ready. And then we’ll be ready for everyone.”

About the Author

  • Amy Crawford has written for Boston magazine, the Boston Globe, Slate, and Smithsonian. She lives outside Boston.