Empathy: I have it in droves

SUITS YOU: Support worker Ashlee Wirth in an empathy suit with trainers Julie Mettyear and Sue Smart.

SUITS YOU: Support worker Ashlee Wirth in an empathy suit with trainers Julie Mettyear and Sue Smart.

WHAT does it feel like getting older? If only I knew...

Well, I have an idea when I crawl out of bed... or try a quick jog... or decide to take the stairs instead of the lift. But is that getting older or just plain being out of condition?

Ageing brings with it many challenges - and some body "fails".

Hearing isn't as good as it used to be, eyesight tends to fade, you can't move as well as you'd like to... and if only I could remember what I was about to say.

Could it be dementia? If it was, what would it feel like?

Enter the boffins from the University of Sydney's Department of Rural Health.

They have developed what they call an "empathy suit" so the wearer can feel, in part, what it might be like to live with dementia.

While it's not your iron mask or straight jacket, it does come with extras like straps, weights and braces to manipulate the body and restrict movement, sight and hearing.

Funny you might say, but it could just prove an essential tool in training aged care workers.

The suits have been labelled PAUL - Premature Ageing Unisex Leisure - and incorporated into training for Adelaide-based aged care provider ACH Group.

"It gives you such a good understanding of the restrictions people face daily," one suit-wearer said. "I would recommend it to anyone in the industry."

Suit wearers have labelled the experience as "eye-opening" and giving them a "deeper insight into customer needs through simulating the lived experience of an older person" - and that is a very good thing.

Funny though, there's always someone ready to criticise.

One caller to our office proffered that the suits weren't quite "real enough", suggesting they perhaps be fitted with needles, yes needles, behind the knee to simulate the pain many people experience when moving their legs.

Realistic, perhaps, but somehow I don't think that addition would make it to the trial stage!

No matter what add-ons you'd like to see, it's clear that having support workers understand how their patients feel and move will go a long way to improving care and empathy.

And isn't that what it's all about?

  • Cheryl Field is editor of The Senior, Australia's leading newspaper for over-55s. Read it online: thesenior.com.au