Suiting up for an ageing society: Students walk a mile in the shoes of the elderly

To attend Dr Kuan Yee Han’s class, students have to suit up – like Iron Man. But instead of becoming a superhero with special powers, the effect is quite the opposite.

Consisting of earmuffs, a hydration backpack, weights, gloves and goggles, the body suit – named the Elderly Life Simulation Attire (ELSA) – was created by Dr Kuan for his Technologies and Ageing in Singapore course to help students understand the needs of the elderly.

“For students who are in their early 20s, imagining what it feels like to be old is very challenging,” explained the Senior Lecturer at NUS Tembusu College.

“They can only observe the elderly around them, but to feel (what it’s like to be elderly) will be very difficult.”

The suit aims to bridge the empathy gap by limiting students’ ability to move and flex their limbs. It also muffles their hearing and blurs their vision. This, Dr Kuan hopes, will help them produce more effective and feasible solutions to help seniors live better.

He spent a year conceptualising the course before its rollout in 2018 at Tembusu College. Over a semester, students from the college delve into how technology can be used to strengthen elderly people’s ties to their community and improve their social life, especially in Singapore’s fast-ageing society

Bridging the empathy gap

When he was a student enrolled in the NUS Overseas College Programme in 2007, Dr Kuan spent a year in Silicon Valley at a medical device start-up. It was his time there that shaped his interest in pursuing medical technology engineering.

But graceful ageing did not become an area of passion for the NUS alumnus, who holds a BEng in Mechanical Engineering and a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, until several years later.

Seeing how his parents were growing older – developing wrinkles, losing hair, and becoming frail – made him realise that it was a topic he wanted to explore. He also interacted with the “aunties” working in the dining halls of the college, and wished that people would “not just see them as a group of elderly but as people with individual stories to share”.

Dr Kuan did not recall seeing any ageing-related courses during his time as a student. So as an educator, he decided to design his own.

In its first iteration, he replicated a two-room Housing and Development Board flat in the college’s reading room. The goal was to simulate daily living and allow students to understand what the elderly need to live independently and safely.

However, the learning outcomes were limited as students could not experience first-hand the physical struggles of the elderly.

To address the gap, Dr Kuan worked with former student Lai Jiongrui to build the ELSA bodysuit. Consisting of weights from Decathlon, earmuffs from Mustafa Centre, and hydration backpacks, each bodysuit costs below $100 – significantly cheaper than alternatives on the market that are used for education and research and could cost thousands of dollars.

While wearing the bodysuit, students enter the simulated flat and complete tasks such as cooking a meal and changing bedsheets.

ELSA may be the most memorable part of the course for most students, but fourth-year Chemistry major Tan Eu-Hsuan Chloe noted that the course explores more than just the physical process of growing old. It opened her eyes to the “different perspectives and dimensions” of ageing by covering the emotional aspects as well.

“The course really helped us to understand the negative feelings towards slowly losing your ability to conduct daily activities,” she added.

Learning outside the classroom

By incorporating experiential and authentic learning in his teaching pedagogy, Dr Kuan enables his students to gain first-hand experiences and develop new perspectives. This also helps them see the connections between real life and what they are learning.

As part of the course, he also encourages his students to have end-of-life conversations with their parents and the other elderly people in their lives.

While this is a taboo topic for some people, he believes the conversation is necessary to ensure clarity on critical matters such as lasting power of attorney and advanced care planning. He prepares students by conducting role-play sessions where they brainstorm various ways to strike up the conversation.

Dr Kuan also gets his students to organise activities for the elderly during their visits to day-care centres such as St Luke’s ElderCare and Lion Befrienders. Afterwards, they assess if their activities were successful in engaging the seniors.

For instance, some students coordinated an origami session during one of their visits. But they later learnt that many of the seniors found the activity frustrating. Dr Kuan explained: “(The elderly people) did not know what was happening. And when they folded, they did not know whether it was correct or not.”

On the other hand, an activity that involved guessing the prices of different items was a hit. “We got to see a very different atmosphere. It was more collaborative,” Dr Kuan recalled.

The students often have a good time, too. “We really enjoyed going for (Dr Kuan’s) lessons,” said Titus Hutch Jr. Yim Yi Zheng, a second-year undergraduate majoring in Psychology who took the course in 2023. “It’s not just sitting down and learning about the statistics of how many elderly people there are.”

Ageing like fine wine

Six years after its launch, the course is still a work in progress. Dr Kuan often collaborates with course alumni – such as Jiongrui, who helped design the ELSA bodysuit – as he seeks ways to improve the learning experience.

Next on his agenda? Coding a Telegram bot to help him run self-guided field trips.

“It will be a treasure hunt in which students have to solve puzzles related to the elderly,” he said, adding that the bot would help him communicate with students efficiently while allowing them to learn at their own pace.

“I’ll see if I can code the bot myself. If not, I’ll work with a student researcher or a computer science student,” he added.

The course is ageing like fine wine as it continues to develop, encouraging more youth to engage with a topic that is often glossed over.

As Chloe pointed out: “People often talk about ageing like it’s a simple process, but there are actually so many aspects to it.”