Can a suit that simulates the everyday challenges faced by the elderly promote social harmony and empathy?
According to official statistics, Hong Kong’s elderly population aged 65 and above is likely to double in the next 20 years, making up one-third of the city’s population. The ageing population not only weighs on the healthcare system and social welfare services, but also gives rise to different social issues and even radically changes the business models of various industries.
This societal background inspired three post-90s Hong Kong social entrepreneurs to found Eldpathy in 2012. The social enterprise introduced the simulation suits from Taiwan and developed elderly simulation experiences to help businesses, organisations and the public to think from the elderly’s perspective and apply their empathy when planning their future businesses, products and services so as to respond to the changes and challenges brought by the “Silver Generation”.
A special suit to simulate the difficulties of the elderly
While getting older is inevitable, the founders of Eldpathy Herman Chan, Samantha Kong and Nivey Tsang, all alumni of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), want people to experience the challenging daily life of the elderly personally. It all started with the Hong Kong Social Enterprise Challenge these three Business Administration graduates took part in. As they reflected on how they might give back to the community, Herman noted, “We were raised by our grandparents and we witnessed their health deteriorating as they aged. However, young people seldom know the needs of the elders, let alone how to interact with them. We believe that the most effective way to address this problem is to allow the young generation to have a first-hand experience.”
The innovation process in design thinking usually begins with observation, interview and research, and the story of Eldpathy is no exception. They visited the Hondao Senior Citizen’s Welfare Foundation in Taiwan and brought back a simulation suit. Resembling the outfit of a construction worker, the simulation suit can instantly turn a wearer into an “old man” with unsteady legs. The back straps force the wearer to hunch down, and the weight tied around one leg makes one limp. And the blurry goggles can simulate the poor eyesight caused by macular degeneration.
Herman explained, “The hectic lifestyle of modern people and the popularity of social media have weakened face-to-face communication. Thus, people have fewer chances to observe the surroundings. The simulation suit is the first step for us to put ourselves into the elderly’s shoes and rethink their needs.”
Therefore, the trio developed elderly simulation activities for schools, corporations and the public using the suit, hoping to raise people’s awareness towards the elderly. The idea helped them win the Hong Kong Social Enterprise Challenge and HK$140,000 as seed capital, which allowed them to purchase over 20 simulation suits from Taiwan and turn their idea into reality.
Elderly simulation experience that ignites empathy
Apart from using the simulation suits, the Eldpathy team also invites elder mentors to share their experiences and thoughts with the participants. “Instead of the traditional one-way teaching that simply points out the difficulties faced by the elderly in everyday life, we want to focus more on experiential learning to arouse the empathy within the participants. As they exchange with the elderly, they can observe and have a deeper understanding of the impact of physical limitations on their daily lives.”
Herman pointed out that on top of stimulating the participants’ empathy, these activities also aim to highlight the idea of humanistic care. “The human-centred spirit of design thinking is actually about a caring heart for the society. By founding Eldpathy, we hope to promote this idea and turn it into part of the organisational culture of the private and public sectors. We would love to see that the teams of these organisations will take the initiative to think from the perspectives of the users with empathy when designing products and services.”
Human-centred spirit that drives business reforms and social integration
In the early years, Eldpathy joined hands with fast-food chain Fairwood to offer advice on service improvement. “As Fairwood recognised the increasingly ageing population in Hong Kong, it sought cooperation with us. First of all, our elder mentors served as mystery customers and evaluated their services. Then we developed an elderly simulation workshop for the managers, who had to put on the simulation suits before ordering food and dining in the fast-food restaurant in order to experience the challenges faced by the elderly.”
After the workshop, guided by the elder mentors, the managers tried to identify the discoveries they made during the experience and to figure out the reasons so as to propose the right solutions for improving the services. “For example, some participants realised that old people were unable to read the menu clearly with their poor eyesight. They also struggled to collect their meals or cut their pork chops easily.” Sharing the problems identified by the participants on that day, Herman added, “So they began to think about how to improve the services in their restaurants, such as enlarging the font size of the menus, introducing meal delivery service and offering pre-cut pork chops. We then arranged our elder mentors to serve as mystery customers again and compare the new dining experience. Finally, they shared their views with the managers and encouraged them to fine-tune their services.”
With these activities, Eldpathy led the Fairwood team through an innovation process by collecting opinions from users and seeking continuous improvements. “This is a vital part of design thinking, as well as the key to developing products and services that can truly meet the users’ needs.”
In other words, the seemingly simple elderly simulation experience can be an inspiration for corporates to transform their processes and inspire innovations. It can also drive social integration. “In addition to understanding the needs of the elderly, we also want the participants to think about how to create small changes at the organisation or community level with empathy, and show their care for the elderly. If this empathy can be extended to other areas, we will see a more harmonious community. This is exactly what Eldpathy wants to achieve,” said Herman.