Walking in their shoes: How cities can include senior citizens in planning

IIT-Bombay and design firm Dig-Design have come together to create an 'age empathy suit' meant to simulate conditions of ageing.

“My grandfather is 88 years old. Like other senior citizens, he used to go for long walks, but now he can’t. Often, he doesn’t tell us how he feels because he doesn’t want to bother us. Going through this experience of wearing the empathy suit, which simulates challenges faced by older people, is very helpful. It’s not that we don’t know about the issues, but experiencing them first hand provides a better understanding,” says Amod.

He is referring to a wearable empathy suit being developed at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay that communicates the experiences of older citizens to younger persons, who typically occupy key decision-making roles. This ‘Voluntary Ageing Device’ (VAD) places policymakers in the shoes of older persons, literally.

Need for Voluntary Ageing Device  

Two trends are colliding in contemporary India – demographic ageing and urbanisation. The compounding consequence of this collision is an increase in the share of older persons in our cities. However, our cities continue to be planned for the mobility of automobile-owning, able-bodied persons, neglecting the mobility rights of an increasing population of our most vulnerable citizens. 

This is not an isolated concern in India, or in other developing countries. Cities across the world are acknowledging these concerns and modifying planning philosophies to consider the changing demographics. 

In 2020, the researchers studying the impact of ageing on cities at the Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies at IIT Bombay, came across a video of an age empathy suit developed by MIT’s Age-Lab almost a decade ago. They found that various versions were being developed by public universities and private companies in the Western hemisphere and in East Asia, where ageing had already become a priority in social policies and urban planning. 

They realised that Indian urban planners would also benefit from such a device as our cities were rapidly ageing too. However, the existing suits were unsuitable for Indian conditions such as the humidity, socio-cultural factors like Indian clothes, and the administration and budgets of municipal corporations. Clearly, there was a need to develop an age empathy suit tailored for the Indian setting.

How does the age empathy suit work?

The voluntary ageing device (VAD) has just been tested for functionality last month. It approximates the common age-related ailments such as a hunched posture, frozen shoulder, joint stiffness, and even tremors that are characteristic of neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

Its modular half-body design restricts movement, enabling users to experience the difficulties that older persons encounter in completing simple tasks like crossing an intersection, waiting at a bus stop for long durations, drinking water from a tap, walking with groceries, standing up from a park bench/chair or taking the stairs. In short, it simulates the lived experience of senior citizens for anyone who wears the suit.

A volunteer wears the age empathy suit that simulates lived experience of senior citizens
Amod, a volunteer, dons the age empathy suit and takes the stairs to understand how senior citizens would actually experience. Pic: Alan Moses Anthony

Shivani, one of the volunteers in her 20s, wore the VAD and shared her experience. “It’s like you don’t truly understand it until you experience it. For someone who can easily perform day-to-day activities, wearing this suit offers a new perspective. It’s beneficial to have a suit that is purposefully restrictive to highlight able-bodied privileges. As a woman, the suit was definitely uncomfortable, but in a way that served its purpose,” she said

“The “saree” was an important design constraint as we could not have a suit that would require strappings across most parts of the body.” They tried and tested pneumatic and elastic forms of resistance but discarded them. The design finalised uses flexible metal ropes, collar restraints, and weights.

The designers and researchers went through multiple iterations of the design. Ashish of Dig-Design (and an alumni of the IDC School of Design) says, “We wanted politicians and senior bureaucrats to wear it, possibly in public view such as in a busy traffic junction or a railway platform or bus stand. This meant the suit and the process of wearing it should look purposeful and safe.

Read more: Mumbai is a friendly city, now only if it could also be age-friendly…

Challenges faced by senior citizens in cities

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Age-Friendly Cities and Communities Framework (AFCC) is a response to the increasing number of older persons living in cities. The AFCC has accessibility as one of its critical dimensions. This outcome is broken down into:  

  • neighbourhood walkability
  • accessible public spaces and buildings
  • accessible and affordable public transport. 

These design features of cities that facilitate urban mobility are important because they determine the extent of social participation allowed to senior citizens. This in turn influences healthy ageing.

Without social participation, the elderly get isolated. Loneliness and social isolation can result in smaller brain sizes and loss of executive functions both of which that are symptoms of dementia. A more specialised framework for urban planning for dementia would include designing pathways, signages and other digital systems that guide older persons in urban spaces without violating their privacy.

The policy researchers at ADCPS knew about the challenges in influencing urban policy for inclusion. Historically, urban spaces in India have been hostile to pedestrians and have favoured motorists. Uneven pathways, a lack of clean and hygienic public toilets, limited public spaces and insufficient seating areas make it increasingly difficult even for able-bodied persons. Expecting concern for older persons’ mobility may be a fantasy. 

The apathy is stark given that of the nearly 268 municipal corporations in India, Kochi in Kerala is the only city to figure in the WHO’s age-friendly cities network.

Nevertheless, demographic ageing of the urban population is a reality that will hit urban planners in the very near future. Vishnu, one of the faculty members of the ageing and cities project at ADCPS says, “Municipal leaderships across the country need a focused sensitisation to prevent city infrastructures from denying access to a full spectrum of authentic human existence to senior citizens.”

That is why, three departments of the Indian Institute of Technology – the Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies (ADCPS), Sunita Sanghi Centre for Ageing and Neurodegenerative Diseases (SCAN), IDC School of Design, and DigDesign (a Bengaluru based design firm run by IDC alumni) are collaborating to develop the VAD to transform attitudes of urban planners. 

Read more: Myths and realities of Alzheimer’s Disease in urban India

Interdisciplinary approach to solving problems of ageing

In significant ways, the interdisciplinary nature of the faculty at the IIT Bombay has shaped the evolution of the age empathy suit. While the idea emerged in the discussions among policy scholars at ADCPS, they lacked expertise in design or fabrication. The faculty, students and alumni of the IDC School of Design on the campus came to the rescue.

In 2022, SCAN (Sunita Sanghi Centre for Ageing and Neurodegenerative Diseases), a centre with an exclusive focus on ageing started functioning from the Bio-Science department. It is funded by an alumni whose mother succumbed to a neurodegenerative disease. The faculty at SCAN, who are immersed in pure science research, (they are developing a blood test for early detection of dementia), understood the relevance of the policy in both creating and addressing preconditions for dementia, like social isolation.

This association between policy and pure science research, gave the VAD a scientific foundation. Further, IIT Bombay’s seed grant for research and development supplemented with the funding from SCAN allowed the designers the freedom to experiment and fail with different ideas before zeroing in on the current design.

Read more: International Day of the Older Persons: Navigating life as elderly in Mumbai

How will senior citizens actually benefit from VAD?

Unlike conventional educational tools, this VAD is experience-based, immersing wearers in the daily struggles of the older person. Transcending shock value, it actually acts as a window into the future selves of individuals. Consequently, it offers professionals an empathetic lens through which they can better understand physical and social challenges awaiting us as we grow older. 

By donning the VAD, engineers, city planners, bureaucrats, and even students can gain invaluable insights into the obstacles encountered by older individuals. For instance, planners can ensure that sidewalks and pathways are safe and level to walk on. They can incorporate railings and anti-slip surfaces for better grip and support, and ensure that benches and seating spaces are ergonomically designed. They can also design public transportation, which is more accessible and safer for our senior citizens.

Moreover, understanding sensory impairments faced by the elderly can lead to better lighting in public spaces, clearer signage, and integrating more user-friendly interfaces in public amenities.

The suit has built-in options for future incorporation of simulated vision impairment or reduced auditory senses. The suit could also enable the BMC to conduct an amenities and activity mapping of the city from the point of view of older persons. 

As cities evolve and grow, creating an age-friendly environment becomes crucial. The ageing population requires thoughtful integration into urban planning to ensure they can lead active and healthy lives. In bustling metropolises like Mumbai, the challenges are magnified due to high population density and rapid urbanisation.

Vishnu sums it up by saying, “Negotiating built areas with age-related constraints is not something to look forward to. It was unnerving to experience involuntary movements to the fingers from the electrical pulses from the suit. The sense of relief after taking off the suit was a moment of realisation that there are many who cannot just step out.” 

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