Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

An afternoon as an older adult

Written by Jenna Johnston, MSOT candidate at Washington University in St. Louis and participant in the Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

A few weeks into the Summer Research ProgramAging & Neurological Diseases Track activities, we visited WashU’s Danforth Campus to experience what was listed on our schedule as “empathic exercises.” These activities were designed to simulate certain conditions associated with aging. After a brief presentation about some of the changes to our senses and mobility that can accompany the process of getting older, we were each given a plastic bag containing the items we would don to mimic the experience that some individuals have with aging, and we ventured out to navigate the campus and complete a small group task. In my bag, I found a pair of goggles that had been painted so that a large patch of paint obscured the center of my vision, simulating low vision due to macular degeneration. My group had the task of making the trek to the campus store, finding a pen with the WashU logo, and noting its price.

At left is campus view. At right is the same view, through the goggles

Immediately after putting on the goggles and without even noticing, I found myself trying to cheat the goggles by turning my head and shifting my eyes to find my normal vision again. If I truly was experiencing macular degeneration, this is something that would not be possible. I found it to be disorienting to see an object, such as a light post or even a person walking in front of me, in my periphery, only for it to go into my blind spot when I got closer. Arriving at the campus store, it was very difficult to navigate the many shelves and clothing racks, and, when we finally found the section containing the writing utensils, it was even harder to focus on such small items when I was able to use only my peripheral vision. Reading the numbers on the tiny price sticker was impossible; another member of my group had to do it for me.

I found this exercise to be incredibly valuable. As someone who has worked for years with older adults and who aspires to have a career in geriatric care, I feel that I have compassion for the aging population and a strong sense of motivation to educate myself on the challenges they may face during the process. None of my previous experiences were able to have the type of impact on me that this exercise did. Although our simulation was far from a perfect replication of conditions associated with aging, being “in the shoes” of an older adult with macular degeneration made it clear to me how frustrating, isolating, and disorienting the condition can be. There is no way to completely understand what someone is going through until you have experienced it yourself. I got to take the goggles off at the end of the exercise, and I also do not experience any other functional impairments, such as limited mobility or cognitive decline, that can occur in the aging process, so I am still far from that complete sense of empathy. I will carry this experience with me as I move forward in my education and career, as well as life in general, to instill me with sympathy, patience, and a sense of purpose as I serve the aging population.