While other children were dancing exuberantly to international folk music, 11-year-old Beckett Hill chose a more physically restrictive activity at the International Intergenerational Event at Senior Friendship Centers on April 28.
“I felt stiff, and dizzy, and tired,” he said, after experiencing the Sarasota Aging Sensitivity Suit.
Yet, he said he was glad for the experience and would even repeat it. He wasn’t intimidated by trying on the unusual gear in a room of other attendees – at least, not too much.
“It wasn’t really hard; it was easy and hard,” he said.
Hill said he had wanted to know what it was like to be in one’s 70s and 80s. The experience was accomplished through the suit's extensive features including bungee cords that ran from the suit’s helmet to its waist, mimicking spinal curvature and limited spinal extension.
Based on the suit originally designed by MIT AgeLab, which called it AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System), the suit was recreated in Sarasota in January 2023 after the lab gave its blessing to the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County.
Erin McLeod, president and CEO of Senior Friendship Centers, said the center’s hope was that by mixing an experience of age and culture at the International Intergenerational Event, it might be able to bring more awareness to the larger world around it, including issues associated with aging.
Event organizer Jenny Macias said when she found out about the Aging Sensitivity Suit, she thought it was a great way to create more empathy for the elderly community.
McLeod said in requesting the suit, the organization was seeking to help people understand not just the physical nature of aging, but its social nature as well.
“There's a lot of ageism in the world, and I think as young people, we hustle around and push past people, not understanding they're slowing down for a reason,” she said. “You instantly have empathy when you feel that extra pull on your back or the muddiness in your ears.”
In addition to the bungee cords, the suit included a neck collar to limit joint mobility, wrist guards to reduce wrist flexibility, gloves to reduce tactile sensation, earplugs for reduced hearing and glasses for reduced visibility, among other features.
McLeod said the suit demonstrates how issues like arthritis can make basic tasks more difficult, including picking coins out of a jar, buttoning one’s clothes and operating a smartphone or other device. She said it helps people understand hearing loss, which is often mistaken for dementia because it reduces communication, and neuropathy, which causes tenuous movements and difficulty feeling the ground under one’s feet.
She said the suit was also important for helping others understand the sense of isolation older people experience.
“You become invisible to society, often you're discounted as being old, so therefore your opinion, your idea doesn't really count,” she said. “And that's a challenge. A lot of people feel begin to feel marginalized, like they don't matter anymore. Something that's very important to us is that they feel like they matter and their voice can be heard.”
Since its creation in January, the department has been taking the suit to events, and has even partnered with Suncoast Technical College for certified nursing assistant training for about 60 students performing geriatric rotations.
The students reported their reactions in surveys, mentioning physical restriction and fatigue while wearing the suit, and also, the following day, a sense of loneliness.
The event also mixed cultural experiences and community with the experience of aging.
Many seniors in the room were flexing their joints. The Sarasota Grapeviners demonstrated dances from countries including Greece and Romania, sometimes accompanied by children in attendance who were eager to participate.
“I was really hoping for a little bit more kids,” said Macias. “But I think the ones that came had an enjoyable time."
The event was part of Suncoast Remake Learning Days and promoted foreign language programs at the center and offered American, Italian, Mexican and Mediterranean food from Tamiami Tap.
“I think it's important to bring generations together, families and older adults together, to give people a chance to see each other as human beings and break down barriers, so, then pretty soon, you realize we're all just people,” said McLeod.
Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.