Wednesday, January 4, 2012


AGNES: An Empathy Suit for (About?) the Elderly

AGNES (the suspiciously convenient acronym for the "Age Gain Now Empathy System") is an attractive MIT-designed outfit made of rods and straps that, like the empathy belly before it, helps young people better understand what it's like to get closer to death. At the end of the video, two authentic older people flank an AGNES'd young man — penny for their thoughts.



fashion, aging, MIT, agnes

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I wish I could take my empathy suit off.


I suppose asking old people about these things would just be ridiculous@a


This is the most depressing thing I've ever seen, because this is what will happen. You'll put on the AGNES suit. You'll feel agonizingly miserable. You'll feel a twinge of sympathy for old people. You'll take the AGNES suit off, breathing joyfully, gratefully, glad to have your healthy body back. But off in the corner of your mind, a shadow lurks: "This is all temporary," the shadow whispers. "You have seen a glimpse of what your future holds." You'll go about your remaining years, trying to enjoy your health, but always haunted by doubt, the lingering knowledge that this is all temporary. Inevitably, despite all your empathy and your healthy living, you begin to collapse into decrepitude...slowly, so slowly that you almost don't notice what's happening. Until one day you're creeping along in the grocery store, looking for some apples, when you experience a wave of deja vu: "This feels familiar," you think. "What - oh..." Your heart sinks as you realize that once again, you're back in the AGNES suit. You claw desperately at your face, trying to take one last free, healthy breath, to stand tall and strong just one last time -- but it's too late. You're old. You're imprisoned in the AGNES suit of your body, and this time, you can never take it off. You creep around for a few more increasingly painful, increasingly limited years. And then you die.

They should just call it the Nothing is Permanent, Everything Is Suffering Suit and be done with it.

Speaking of cake, I have cake

@Kristen It may sound bizarre, but sometimes I think things like dementia and other mental declines associated with extreme old age might be, in a very small and unexpected way, a bit of a blessing. A doctor friend says that while many sufferers get agitated, when they are very sick and dying they tend to be weirdly calm, usually because their brain is not in the present, they have returned to some point in the distant past. It could be a good coping mechanism because being present and aware at the time of death can't be pleasant. This possibility can be a little bit consoling too when you look at how we end up - maybe mental decline confuses our perception so that time isn't linear any more and instead of being aware of the awful present we hallucinate a pleasant time in the past. I'm probably just deluding myself that there's an upside to aging and decline, but you gotta have something I suppose!


@skyandgorse I think there is something to that. I have a 90 year old relative who is deep in dementia and has been for years. She broke both her hips this year (separate accidents no less) and has been hospitalized for months. But her mind is so gone, she hardly notices what's happening to her. She's always singing old songs from her youth in her native language and when she could, she was often dancing.


@skyandgorse - I was just listening to someone talk about their elderly Mother in Law yesterday. She is in her 90s and unwell, her family and doctor all know that she will not be alive for much longer. In the last week or so, she has been having lots of conversations with people that aren't there, that sort of thing. Some of those people are busy fixing things around the house while they chat with her. From what I was told, she really enjoys these conversations, so maybe there is a consolation for some.


My mom is my AGNES suit. Maybe she wasn't warned and feels it's her duty, but she tells me how awful I'm going to feel when I'm older every time I call. I hang up the phone thinking, I need to exercise! Take care of this temple! Right after I stuff all this food in my mouth and watch a couple (or more) episodes of this TV show and then... oh, it's time to go to bed.


@klaus My mom is my AGNES suit too. She's 75 and I am 49. She has been in chemo for 3 months with 2 months to go for breast cancer treatment. After that she will have surgery and then radiation therapy. It'll be almost a year of treatment all told. I am her primary caregiver and let me tell you I try sooooo hard to remember that she is old and already going through a lot, but sometimes....sometimes I cannot stand how slow she is physically and mentally. Oh look, here comes the bus to Hell. Gotta run.


@HelloTitty Oh man, that is sad about your mom, but she's so lucky to have you and probably wouldn't blame you for having those thoughts. This stranger on the internet doesn't anyway. Your comment made me think of Louie C.K. and how he captures these personal struggles perfectly with his skits about his children; talking about how god awful and boring they can be while also being a dedicated and loving parent.


I had this wonderful professor once. She was older, in her late 70's probably. I interviewed her for an oral history project and she told me the thing she wanted to work on most in her later years was age discrimination towards the elderly. One thing she hated how people saw her, an accomplished, intelligent woman, as just a "cute old lady." I DID think of her as a cute old lady and then I felt bad!


Yeah, but what about the part where I get to wear plaid pants and pastel blazers? And I get awesome liverspots, and nobody gives me shit if I decide to just stop giving a fuck about hair growing out of my ears? And the part where I can just shoplift and if I get caught I just say "whoops I forgot"?

Wait, for the record - most of the old people in my family used to shoplift ALL THE TIME. Is that normal, or do I just come from a family of hoodlums?


@leon.saintjean It's genius is what it is. May as well take advantage of that invisibility.

My bf and I like to talk about all the crazy shit we'll be able to pull off style wise when we're older... it's one way to be excited about aging?

tea tray in the sky.

@klaus Also: how badass all our ridiculous tattoos are going to look.

fondue with cheddar

@leon.saintjean You should dress like this guy!


@liznieve links why you no worrrrrk? http://advancedstyle.blogspot.com/


I like the yellow/sepia tinted glasses so everything looks more nostalgic.

citizen knope

De lurking to say that, while I appreciate MIT's efforts to fight age-discrimination, I think young people can better learn to empathize with old people by actually talking to old people. Establishing long-term relationships seems like it would lead to more meaningful experiences of empathy than wearing a simulator for a few minutes would. Likewise, engineers and others could learn more by interviewing the people who will be using their products. Yet, I feel like I am being too harsh?


@citizen knope

Not too harsh, but a little unrealistic...
These are future designers and engineers -- for them, kinesthetic learning, experiencing directly the impact their decisions and choices might have on someone less able-bodied, would likely be more compelling (and faster) than building relationships with elderly people and interviewing them at length. When we are very young and think we know everything, something we experience directly tends to stick with us more than something we are told. :)

citizen knope

@City_Dater That makes sense. I think that spending time with my own wonderful elderly relatives recently probably made me react negatively to the idea that you can "empathize" with a group of people without actually interacting with them. Yet, we empathize with strangers and mass groups of people all the time when we hear about a natural disaster or something similar, so of course its possible and good to do so. The suit would be a memorable experience for a kid and efficient for engineers, I just hope they all call their grandparents afterward and tell them about it!

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