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You're never too young to be old

How does it feel to be old? Twenty-five-year-old Alex Hayes put on goggles, ear plugs and a helpless manner and went to find out
WHEN YOU are young and fit, it's hard to sympathise with the limitations of old age. Young people are more likely to seethe and rev their engines than to empathise with the little old lady wobbling slowly across the road.

With the aim of increasing understanding of the handicaps of old age, I have been muscled into taking part in Through Other Eyes - a scientific experiment to raise people's awareness of a very real social problem. In other words, show us how it actually feels to be old. I was escorted on this mission by Gaby Brooks and Sharon Steele of Age Concern.

Age Concern believes that most of the younger population have no idea how difficult it is for some elderly people to perform everyday tasks such as open a milk carton or shop, let alone deal with more arduous chores. "Our ultimate aim is for people to realise how their mother or granny might feel," explains Ms Steele. "Once you see how your close relatives are struggling, your attitude towards the aged automatically changes. The next time you're at a supermarket till or behind a slow-moving elderly lady in the street, you're likely to show more patience."

The experiment involves wearing ankle and wrist weights to simulate loss of strength and agility; putting on specially prepared goggles, to represent cataracts, tunnel vision and retina damage, and inserting ear plugs to reduce hearing.

According to the charity's research, "the United Kingdom is an ageing society and, by the year 2026, half the adult population will be aged 55 or over. It is also significant that 80 per cent of the UK's private wealth is in the hands of people over 50, who are also the biggest spenders in every sector". Significant because supermarkets, department stores and other services obviously need older buyers. Fail to accommodate their needs and you risk alienating a large share of your target audience. Ms Steele admits that the original reason for companies showing an interest in the scheme is economic. "But, after their staff have done our workshop, their attitudes do change."

At first all the contraptions make me feel very self-conscious and unsure. "That's exactly how most old people feel," Ms Steele points out. "Many of them lose confidence when they go out, especially if they are in a foreign environment." I certainly struggled. The weights (half a kilo around my wrist and one kilo around my ankle) weren't too cumbersome, but the inflatable orange armband did cut-off the circulation in my arm. If I had had to carry shopping bags for any length of time, I would have found the experience difficult, if not impossible. The surgical gloves on each hand also made simple tasks more awkward, as did the goggles.

The combination of these two impairments was truly challenging. When paying for some flowers, which I could barely see, I struggled desperately to get change out of my pocket, let alone differentiate between the various coins.

Had my manner changed significantly when I was "old"? "You were definitely affected," says Ms Steele. "When you were buying the flowers, you cocked your head to hear the vendor clearly. And you crossed the street over- cautiously, even though the traffic had stopped."

So will I now be more sympathetic towards older people? "The aim of the workshop is not for people to feel sorry for the aged and tip-toe around them. A lot of them actually cope very well with their disabilities. What we're trying to say is that there's no need for some of the present barriers to be there."

These "barriers" are often small, seemingly insignificant obstacles, which prove insurmountable for the elderly. "For example, the colour schemes that some organisations use to promote their products prevent older people from seeing the price on the tag. Another example is the excessive use of mirrors in shops. It can be very confusing and disorientating. These are artificial barriers; aesthetic additions which serve no practical purpose. I mean, why put a stair in a building if it's not needed?'

Age Concern has carried out its workshop in large companies such as Safeway and Nestle. The workshops take half a day, cost between pounds 595 to pounds 895, and can accommodate a maximum of 12 people. And the scheme is making waves. Earlier this year, British Gas agreed to sponsor them. `They give us money to develop the programme, market it and renew some of the equipment."

On a personal level, my greatest achievement was threading a needle and sewing a button on to a piece of fabric despite my blurry vision and shaking hands. Now, for someone with a dreadful sewing record (one poorly sewn shirt-button in 25 years), this was no mean feat. Ironically, though - now that the contraptions have been removed - I will have to wait 40- odd years before I sew as expertly again. In the meantime, old people around Britain will continue raking it in on Bingo night. That's the injustice of being young.

For further information about Age Concern, call 0800 00 99 66; or contact Sharon Steele on 01543 504640 or Gabriella Brooks on 0181-679 8000