Rozanne Puleo and Lisa D'Ambrosio
Research fellow and research scientist, MIT Agelab
Puleo, 36, left, and D'Ambrosio, 43, use a suit called AGNES (the age gain now empathy system) to research the changing needs of boomers.
Puleo: "The suit has a pelvic harness that connects to a headpiece, mimicking the spine and restricting mobility, range of motion, joint function, balance, and vision. We've suited up students and taken them to the grocery store to purchase foods with low sugar, low sodium, and low fat — foods commonly purchased by older adults. They found that it was very challenging to locate these items on the shelf. That's valuable information that we can take back to organizations."
D'Ambrosio: "The fact that we have people living longer than ever before has significant implications for how we live as a society. We have to make sure that as we all age, we're able to maintain our qualities of life. That starts with the generation approaching retirement now. They're not planning on being relegated to the couch. They see it as retirement from a job, but not from life."
Puleo: "It's a matter of learning what works best and what's most user-friendly, not just boomer-friendly. We have to find solutions that transcend age."
-Online Extended Q&A-
Fast Company: Agelab offers a really broad study of how people age—what are some of the topics you’ve focused on?
LD: We examine questions around driving and housing for older adults, trying to consider the challenges facing them, as well as those facing their families. Even specific subjects, like how do you help older adults prepare for natural disasters? How do you help them recover from those situations? We did a series of focus groups on the topic and basically, most people are not very well-prepared. In the case of a hurricane, people say they plan to make last minute preparations—fill the bathtub with water, stock up on bottled water—but for those who might have physical or mobility limitations, those small things can be impossible. How can we help them prepare?
FC: As you explore this space, what makes the boomer generation so unique?
RP: I’m an extra clinical exercise physiologist, and at the time when I started my career I was working in a tertiary care program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and a lot of my patients were older and I was introducing exercise intervention. For me, this generation is from a culture that didn’t grow up with exercise as the norm, or as a form of recreation. It wasn’t so well accepted and common like it is today. So it’s these small differences that make this group an interesting one to examine.
FC: What inspired the Agelab to build AGNES?
RP: There have been some empathy suits built in the past, but they were all proprietary and we couldn’t get our hands on them. I had been involved with a program that used an obesity suit to help people understand what it feels like to be overweight, and I was also familiar with the pregnancy belly. Knowing that these tools existed, I thought we should build our own. It restricts your mobility, free range of motion, limits joint function, balance, and vision. Pretty much every joint in the body is limited in some way, and I think that’s the key component of the suit. The only thing it doesn’t impair is cognitive function.
LD: This generation is healthier, wealthier, and better educated than their parents were as a generation, but they’re going to face some different challenges than their parent faced, because their parents were more like to have had social security or pensions to really provide a lot of retirement income they anticipated. So as the boomers may stay in the workforce much longer than originally anticipated, we want to make that easier for them. Even when they reach retirement, they’re not going to sit on the porch and watch the sunset—they’re going to keep moving.
FC: As you share your research with big brands, what are the challenges they’re trying to overcome to reach the boomers?
RP: Companies we’ve worked with are interested in learning about this generation’s behaviors. Previous generations were brand loyal, but the boomers are much more educated, and less likely to be brand loyal because the investigate products. They will research to find the product, the car, the phone, that will best serve their needs, but they won’t buy it if it looks like it was made just for them—if you design something for the old man, the old man won’t buy it and neither will the young man.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.