RU design alumni don gerontology suit to walk in seniors' shoes


Amy Bechner '11, an interior designer is assisted by Cathy Wilkinson '95, senior interior designer, in donning the School of Nursing GERT suit.

For an exercise in empathy and professional development, two alumnae of RU's interior design department who design spaces for senior living centers and a professional colleague joined Nursing Professor Katie Katz on Sept. 25.

The designers experienced age-and health-related impairments in the School of Nursing's GERontologic Test (GERT) suit as a way to connect better with the users of the facilities they design.

From Barrows Healthcare Division in Roanoke, Cathy Wilkinson '95, senior interior designer, and Amy Beckner '11, interior designer, were joined by Amy Bender, director of training for Harmony Senior Services, a representative of a facility for whom they are designing assisted living and memory care spaces.

Together, the trio experienced the demands and challenges that characterize the aging population they serve.

"It would be a disservice, if I didn't do whatever I can to make my clients' lives easier," said Wilkinson, who arranged the session with Katz after seeing a story about it on local television in September.


Amy Bechner is accompanied by Cathy Wilkinson as they walk the stairs in a suit that mimics the challenges of age and health-related impairments.

The GERT suit simulates the challenges of old age and Wilkinson, Beckner and Bender also donned a hemiparesis suit that simulated the effects of a stroke.

Each of them worked through routine daily activities gauntleted with gloves that trembled and goggles that altered their vision to mimic the visual symptoms of age-related illnesses such as diabetes or glaucoma. The suit restricted their movements and everything was harder, Wilkinson said.

An "ah-ha" moment occurred when Wilkinson finally understood a frequent behavior she had seen at the facilities she visits routinely. She said she had seen residents peer closely and touch signs next to doors, but had dismissed the act as their being nosy. As Wilkinson watched Beckner stop, peer and then touch the signs and fliers that adorn the hallway in Waldron Hall, Wilkinson was the wiser. When her time in the suit came, Wilkinson said she was winded and relieved to regain her youthful health and senses.

"It is really hard to see things, and the signs and colors get all distorted," Wilkinson said. "The environment can be just overwhelming. I understand better now what the residents of my communities see."

The designers scrutinized carpet samples they said were under consideration for a project upon which they are working. Their cognizance of the carpet's visual and tactile elements changed after walking on it and looking at it while in the GERT suit.


Cathy Wilkinson experiences the challenges of age and health-related impairments in the Occupational Therapy Adult Daily Living room in Waldron Hall.

It was but one of the ways their experience affected them. Both cited color, texture, lighting and the sheer effort to move around as noticeably, and frustratingly, different. "While we want to use textures, fabrics and finishes that are pleasing, we don't want to do anything that makes problems for the residents," Wilkinson said.

Beckner said: "Professionally, this will really help my decision-making, but I didn't like it. I want to stay young and will do what I can to live healthy. I appreciate good health so much more now," she said.

Beckner, who is contemplating a return to graduate study in occupational therapy to complement her design training, added,  "The population is aging and there will be a growing need to help people transition successfully. It is really important."

Oct 1, 2014