26 Jun Can We Live Longer but Stay Younger? (ADAM GOPNIK)
With greater longevity, the quest to avoid the infirmities of aging is more urgent than ever.
Aging, like bankruptcy in Hemingway’s description, happens two ways, slowly and then all at once. The slow way is the familiar one: decades pass with little sense of internal change, middle age arrives with only a slight slowing down—a name lost, a lumbar ache, a sprinkling of white hairs and eye wrinkles. The fast way happens as a series of lurches: eyes occlude, hearing dwindles, a hand trembles where it hadn’t, a hip breaks—the usually hale and hearty doctor’s murmur in the yearly checkup, There are some signs here that concern me.
To get a sense of what it would be like to have the slow process become the fast process, you can go to the AgeLab, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, and put on agnes (for Age Gain Now Empathy System). agnes, or the “sudden aging” suit, as Joseph Coughlin, the founder and director of the AgeLab describes it, includes yellow glasses, which convey a sense of the yellowing of the ocular lens that comes with age; a boxer’s neck harness, which mimics the diminished mobility of the cervical spine; bands around the elbows, wrists, and knees to simulate stiffness; boots with foam padding to produce a loss of tactile feedback; and special gloves to “reduce tactile acuity while adding resistance to finger movements.”
Slowly pulling on the aging suit and then standing up—it looks a bit like one of the spacesuits that the Russian cosmonauts wore—you’re at first conscious merely of a little extra weight, a little loss of feeling, a small encumbrance or two at the extremities. Soon, though, it’s actively infuriating. The suit bends you. It slows you. You come to realize what makes it a powerful instrument of emotional empathy: every small task becomes effortful. “Reach up to the top shelf and pick up that mug,” Coughlin orders, and doing so requires more attention than you expected. You reach for the mug instead of just getting it. Your emotional cast, as focussed task piles on focussed task, becomes one of annoyance; you acquire the same set-mouthed, unhappy, watchful look you see on certain elderly people on the subway. The concentration that each act requires disrupts the flow of life, which you suddenly become aware is the happiness of life, the ceaseless flow of simple action and responses, choices all made simultaneously and mostly without effort. Happiness is absorption, and absorption is the opposite of willful attention.
The annoyance, after a half hour or so in the suit, tips over into anger: Damn, what’s wrong with the world? (Never: What’s wrong with me?) The suit makes us aware not so much of the physical difficulties of old age, which can be manageable, but of the mental state disconcertingly associated with it—the price of age being perpetual aggravation. The theme and action and motive of King Lear suddenly become perfectly clear. You become enraged at your youngest daughter’s reticence because you have had to struggle to unroll the map of your kingdom.
The AgeLab is designed to alleviate this progression. It exists to encourage and incubate new technologies and products and services for an ever-larger market of aging people. (“Every eight seconds, a baby boomer turns seventy-three,” Coughlin observes.)
Coughlin, who is in his late fifties, is the image of an old-fashioned American engineer-entrepreneur; he is bald in the old-fashioned, tonsured, Thurber-husband way, wears a bow tie and heavy red-framed glasses, and, walking a visitor through the lab, suggests a cross between Mr. Peabody and Q, from the Bond films, showing you the latest gadgets. His talk is crisply aphoristic and irrigated with an easy flow of statistics: each proposition has its instantly associated number. “Where science is ambiguous, politics begins,” he says. “In the designation of some states, an older driver is fifty, in some eighty—we don’t even know what an older driver is. That ambiguity is an itch I wanted to scratch. Over the past century, we’ve created the greatest gift in the history of humanity—thirty extra years of life—and we don’t know what to do with it! Now that we’re living longer, how do we plan for what we’re going to do?”
“We’re talking about rethinking, redefining one-third of adult life! The greatest achievement in the history of humankind—and all we can say is that it’s going to make Medicare go broke? Why don’t we take that one-third and create new stories, new rituals, new mythologies for people as they age?”
The agnes suit is one of many instruments and appliances—or “cool toys,” as they are more technically known—that can be found in the AgeLab’s glass-walled halls and cubicled corridors, ready to entertain visiting writers, and to instruct visiting entrepreneurs.
The AgeLab has rediscovered the eternal truth that identity matters to us far more than utility. The most effective way of comforting the aged, the researchers there find, is through a kind of comical convergence of products designed by and supposedly for impatient millennials, which secretly better suit the needs of irascible boomers. The best hearing aids look the most like earbuds. The most effective persdevice is an iPhone or an Apple Watch app.
Such unexpected convergences have happened in the past. Retirement villages came to be centered on golf courses, Coughlin maintains, not because oldsters necessarily like golf but because they like using golf carts. It’s the carts that supply greater mobility in and around the village. The golf comes with them. This process of “exaptation” has now accelerated. TaskRabbit and Uber and Rent the Runway—services that provide immediate help for specific problems—are especially valuable for an aging population.
“The dominant paradigm is that older people don’t want new technology,” Coughlin says. “But take the microwave oven! Older women in particular are saved from microdeficiencies in their diet. So, while the millennials want them for convenience, the boomers want them for care for their parents, or themselves.”
By Adam Gopnik
May 13, 2019