How do you attract medical students to study geriatrics? Rig them up to a 22-pound industrial-style suit, complete with ear protectors to stifle hearing; elbow, knee, and hand pads to stiffen the joints, and a yellowish visor that blurs colors.
The Age Man Suit, developed by German scientists, is custom-made to simulate old age. Suited-up students are left creaking around the room, fumbling with a blister pack of pills or wheezing for breath on a routine trip up the stairs.
Rahel Eckhardt, a senior physician at Berlin's Evangelical Geriatrics Centre (EGZB), admits that geriatrics is a rather lackluster field of medicine, yet doctors are needed as the elderly population grows in Germany. Eckhardt says empathy is integral to winning students over to the field.
“Empathy is especially important for geriatricians, because in many cases we can't cure the underlying maladies of our elderly patients,” says Eckhardt, “That's why it is so important for us to give our students a feeling of what it might feel to be old.”
The suit contributes to a major rethinking about health in the medical profession. Eckhardt says the focus has moved from “complete health” to “quality of life”; doctors must move out of the traditional thinking of diagnosis-prescription to having a sense of their patients’ life enjoyment. In this regard, the Age Man Suit puts medical students in the mindset of their elderly patients, to better understand their physical ailments but also their goals.
“[Students] can get a grasp of what small steps might increase the quality of life of our patients, like being able to go the toilet alone or getting up without help every morning,” says Eckhardt.
By 2030, more than a quarter of Germany’s population will be over 65 years of age.