Aided by cotton earplugs and band aids on their fingers to mimic arthritis, hundreds of Americans are flocking to special workshops to discover at first hand what it’s like getting older.
“The concept is teaching us sensitivity, ageing issues,” said Steve Lemoine, executive director of Westminster Thurber, a retirement home in Columbus, Ohio, with 328 residents.
He often sends his staff on such courses as a means of ensuring that they “establish a relationship, restore the autonomy back,” with their elderly residents.
“As I age I started to realise my vision is going, I have aches and pains. It’s very easy in a task-oriented society, like we are, in institutional care to treat people like a widget on an assembly line.”
The “Xtreme Ageing” workshop run by the Macklin Interregional Institute “is designed to take participants through the social, physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual aspects of aging,” said training co-ordinator Peg Gordon.
Seminars lasting three to eight hours are designed for groups of 20 to 25 people, and teach participants about the difficulties of aging such as physical decline, the need to let go of some personal belongings, as well as overcoming the loss of friends and fitting into life in retirement communities.
These workshops are attended not only by retirees themselves, but also by members of their families and representatives of the scientific community.
Teaching methods are interactive and fairly radical. “For the physical part, we handicap people,” Gordon explained.
To help people understand the effects of aging, organisers put cotton in the ears or noses of participants. Glasses or swimming goggles smeared with grease simulate eye problems such as cataracts, while gloves graphically illustrate the loss of the sense of touch which some elderly experience.
Can you count and sort your pills?
Some seminar organisers tape participants knuckles to simulate arthritis or put popcorn in their shoes because as people age they lose fatty tissue on the soles of their feet.
“Once they’ve lost their physical attributes, we do a series of everyday tasks,” Gordon said.
“Can you count and sort your pills? Can you dial a number on a cellphone? Can you get out a map? All of these are very frustrating activities for people.”
Lunch turns into a memorable experience. Participants are given crackers and three different flavours of jam and asked to spread it on the crackers and say what the flavour is.
“With your arthritis and your diminished sense of touch, the crackers are breaking, and that’s frustrating,” Gordon said. “And when you lose your sense of smell and taste, you can’t distinguish the three flavours of jelly.”
But the hardest, according to Gordon, is the emotional part of the exercise.
Members of the workshop are asked to list the five people most important to them, their three most prized possessions and their three most treasured privileges such as driving a car or going to vote.
Then they are asked to accept the loss of the wife, husband, brother or sister, and to keep only two of their possessions.
“Some people are just emotionally distraught, when they realise they are going to lose people they love, liberties that they hold very dear, like driving a car,” Gordon said.
“In the US, typically when people move in long-term care facilities, they are allowed to bring two possessions, probably like a photo album, may be a small TV,” she said. “It’s a shock for people to face that reality.”
She added it was important to train not only younger people, but also 85-year-olds who often say, “I didn’t know that I was old.”