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Pretending to be old gives new views on world of aged


For three years, Patricia Moore set her clock forward and live as an equal among the elderly, encountering a world where youth preys on the weak and everyday tasks become monumental achievements.

Surprisingly, she found an older population that is quite optimistic as well as deeply concerned about the future.

"They weren't sitting around complaining," said Ms. Moore, a Phoenix gerontologist, industrial designer and advocate for the aged. "They were very, very involved citizens who wanted to leave this world a better place for you and me."

Creating an elderly facade was not an easy feat for Ms. Moore, who was 26 when she donned a disguise that made her appear to be 85. She used heavy makeup, wigs and other props to transform into three elderly personalities: a wealthy woman, a "blue-collar" type and a bag lady.

Ms. Moore, now 40, wrote a book, "DISGUISED: A True Story," and is working on a television production about her exploits.

Portraying an "old woman" helped shape her career, which includes designing products that make life easier for everyone. She has developed such items as pill bottles with built-in timers and kitchen utensils for people with diminished strength in their wrists and hands.

A founder of the "universal design" movement, Ms. Moore says her ultimate dream is a society in which people of all abilities can easily function.

Ms. Moore took her disguises on the road from 1979 to 1982, traveling to 116 cities to discover firsthand the problems that face the elderly.

She put wax and non-working hearing aids in her ears to muffle sound and oil in her eyes to create a "glaucoma look" and blurred vision. Molded latex prostheses were applied to her face, and she wore a cinch to lower her bust line.

Ms. Moore created a device with cotton batting and a pad for her back to simulate curvature of the spine and prevent her from reaching high shelves. Her fingers were taped inside gloves to hinder movement.

She also wore splints on her knees to mimic the shuffling walk that plagues some elderly people.

During her travels she found that buildings, clothes, automobiles, furniture and products are all designed with the young and healthy in mind.

Her project also almost cost her life.

One night in Harlem, a New York neighborhood, a gang of boys stole her purse, slammed her to the ground and beat her so badly that she suffered permanent injuries.

It did not deter her. After recovering, she continued her travels.

What she found was that no matter which disguise she wore or where she visited, about 50 percent of the population ignored or mistreated her.

Taxis would not stop when she flagged them. Merchants would respond gruffly when she asked for help.

But when her normal dress reflected her youth, the same merchants would flash a smile and jump up to help her reach an item.

Ms. Moore also observed and talked to other elderly people in her research. Once, she watched a woman take 1 1/2 hours to walk to a nearby market when it took Ms. Moore only 20 minutes.

"I'd see people go two or three times to the store in one day because they couldn't carry it all at once," she said.

Her task also carried tremendous loneliness.

"I'd go days at a time without human contact," Ms. Moore said. "If I'd see someone older, within minutes, they would be touching me."

Although many of those she met expressed concern for younger generations, they realized they were not viewed in the same light.

"They know they aren't viewed as important, and that's hurtful," she said. "They wish people would see them -- and really see them."

Not all Ms. Moore's experiences were negative. She met children, teen-agers and adults who would go out of their way to open a door, help her with a chore, or give her a smile.

"I began to revel and relish in those moments," she said, "because some days, no one would look at me or say hello."

For as many bad moments, there were good.

"It was like pingpong, one good thing, one bad thing, one good thing," she said. ". . . After a while, you'd feel beat up."

Designers such as Ms. Moore have made strides in encouraging manufacturers to produce products for people with limitations.

Laundry soap comes in smaller boxes with handles, foods are being packaged to last longer, and appliances have touch pads instead of dials.

But much must be done to prepare for the aging of the baby boomers who have reached 40, Ms. Moore said.

"We've been very arrogant in our assumptions that we will grow magically older without any of these problems," she said.

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