Over the past century, we’ve created the greatest gift in the history of humanity—thirty extra years of life—and we don’t know what to do with it! Now that we’re living longer, how do we plan for what we’re going to do?
To get a sense of what it would be like to have the slow process of aging become a fast process, you can go to the AgeLab, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, and put on agnes (for Age Gain Now Empathy System). agnes, or the “sudden aging” suit, as Joseph Coughlin, the founder and director of the AgeLab describes it, includes yellow glasses, which convey a sense of the yellowing of the ocular lens that comes with age; a boxer’s neck harness, which mimics the diminished mobility of the cervical spine; bands around the elbows, wrists, and knees to simulate stiffness; boots with foam padding to produce a loss of tactile feedback; and special gloves to “reduce tactile acuity while adding resistance to finger movements.”
Slowly pulling on the aging suit and then standing up—it looks a bit like one of the spacesuits that the Russian cosmonauts wore—you’re at first conscious merely of a little extra weight, a little loss of feeling, a small encumbrance or two at the extremities. Soon, though, it’s actively infuriating. The suit bends you. It slows you. You come to realize what makes it a powerful instrument of emotional empathy: every small task becomes effortful. “Reach up to the top shelf and pick up that mug,” ...requires more attention than you expected. You reach for the mug instead of just getting it. Your emotional cast, as focussed task piles on focussed task, becomes one of annoyance; you acquire the same set-mouthed, unhappy, watchful look you see on certain elderly people on the subway. The concentration that each act requires disrupts the flow of life, which you suddenly become aware is the happiness of life, the ceaseless flow of simple action and responses, choices all made simultaneously and mostly without effort. Happiness is absorption, and absorption is the opposite of willful attention.
The AgeLab is designed to alleviate this progression. It exists to encourage and incubate new technologies and products and services for an ever-larger market of aging people....the AgeLab swiftly discovered that engineering and promoting new products and services specially designed for the expanding market of the aged is a good way of going out of business. Old people will not buy anything that reminds them that they are old. They are a market that cannot be marketed to. In effect, to accept help in getting out of the suit is to accept that we’re in the suit for life. We would rather suffer because we’re old than accept that we’re old and suffer less.
The AgeLab has rediscovered the eternal truth that identity matters to us far more than utility. The most effective way of comforting the aged, the researchers there find, is through a kind of comical convergence of products designed by and supposedly for impatient millennials, which secretly better suit the needs of irascible boomers. The best hearing aids look the most like earbuds. The most effective PERS (personal-emergency-response system) device is an iPhone or an Apple Watch app.
It’s the failure of industry and engineering to address the actual problems of aging—the problems summed up by the aggravations of the agnes suit—that makes Coughlin impatient with scientific speculations about extending life. “We’ve already extended life! What we need is not to put off death a little longer but to write a new narrative of aging as it could be.”The second section of the article describes several approaches that contest the classic explanation of why we age:
Once we have passed reproductive age, the genes can get sloppy about copying, allowing mutations to accumulate, because natural selection no longer cares. And so things fall apart. The second law of thermodynamics gets us all in the end. The car or the Cuisinart works for a decade, breaks down, and can’t be fixed; rust never sleeps, and we do.Contra this view:
...in certain genetic labs at Harvard, the chairs and seals and exaptated services of the AgeLab are regarded as mere Band-Aids on the problem to be solved. Here, there are whispers of undying yeast, tales of eternally young mice, rumors of rejuvenated dogs, and scientists who stubbornly insist that age is an illness to be treated like any other...Perhaps aging is not a condition to be managed but a mistake to be fixed.However,
To pass from the Harvard rejuvenators to the laboratory of Patrick Hof, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in Manhattan, is to sober up a little. Here, there is talk not of imminent innovation but of discouragingly minute work proceeding on many slow-moving fronts over decades. Where the Harvard crowd see quick fixes in the near future, Hof, an expert on the neuronal underpinnings of aging and Alzheimer’s, sees the exposure of ever more confounding complexity.In conclusion...
As you take off the agnes suit—piece by piece; the boots and then the wrist weights and the impeding gloves—the feeling is disconcerting. It’s the return of flow, the feeling of choice and possibility as you begin to move again through the world, that makes you recall that what it is to be young is not to be in a state of ecstasy but merely to be unimpeded, to be in the world without having undue consciousness of your own muscle and bone within it. It’s the same thing we experience when we remove a splinter from our foot; what we get is not happiness in a positive sense but a return to not having to think about the prison and the fact of our flesh. We forget our insides, and fold ourselves back out.
The true condition of youth is the physical ability to forget ourselves. A friend who is still creative in his eighties points out what he calls the geriatric possessive: people past eighty, he says, are expected to say, “I’m going to take my bath,” “I’m going to take my walk.” We can counterpoise that to the pediatric possessive: “You’re going to take your bath,” “It’s time for your nap.” Only in midlife do we feel secure enough to enumerate actions as existing individually outside our possession of them: “I’m going to take a bath,” “I’m going to take a nap.” A bath and a nap exist, briefly, outside our possession of them—they’re just around for the taking, we suppose, and always will be.
We may indeed already be converging as a population — irascible millennials who feel dated at twenty-five and determinedly upbeat boomers who insist on feeling young at seventy — on a single American age, a kind of shared perpetual middleness, where we will dye our hair and take our pills and suddenly collapse in the midst of the dance. Right now, we live well, and then we don’t live well, and then we die. The most that science seems to offer us is this: We’ll live well, and then we’ll die.