A Canadian professor has created an “Empathy Suit” to simulate the effects of aging.

Glen Hougan, who teaches product design at NSCAD University in Halifax, says people who work with the elderly, or design aids for them, should strap on the suit to get an inside feel for the problems of growing old.

“As a society, we don’t do a good job of understanding the aging process and then adapting our environment,” Hougan said. “The Empathy Suit is great because you put it on and it’s like: OK, I get it.”

The suit restricts movement around the knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, neck, wrist and hands. A strap-on pot belly simulates weight gain and various mechanisms stoop posture. Two layers of gloves reduce tactility and simulate poor circulation. The legs are tied together to imitate reduced stride and bad slippers create poor balance.

As if that wasn’t enough, goggles simulate a range of visual problems, from macro degeneration to eye hemorrhages and “floaters” — spots on your eyes. A straw gives the user a sense of what reduced lung capacity feels like and ear muffs reduce hearing.

“What does arthritis feel like? What does it feel like to not be able to bend over and tie your shoes?” asked Hougan. “Physiologically, it simulates what it might feel like as you age.”

Products to help the aging have been stuck on ugly for decades, Hougan says, and that’s going to change.

“The Baby Boomers are coming through the system,” he said. “A lot of the products right now are badly designed. They have that smell of the hospital to them, that cold, institutional look. They function very well, but man, they look ugly.

“The classic case is the orthopedic shoe — those big gorilla boots have been around for 40 years and haven’t been redesigned. Can’t we find a more elegant solution for the problem?”

Boomers will want aids that work well and look good. “I see a huge opportunity to redesign everything,” he said. Better-designed products will also cut back on falls, improving quality of life and cutting health-care costs.

Hougan’s Empathy Suit has attracted world-wide attention. On the day Metro visited NSCAD’s waterfront campus, Rich Collier of PBS had flown in from Manhattan to film a segment.

“It does not take the place of talking to seniors; it’s just an added tool,” Hougan said. “It gives you a little bit of added insight.”

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