How One Museum Looks to Combat Ageism

A new exhibit in Israel educates kids that being old shouldn’t translate to being sidelined

At the Israel Children’s Museum exhibit “Dialogue With Time,” visitors strap on heavy shoes to experience what it feels like for the elderly to climb a flight of stairs. Israel Children's Museum

I walk alone through the tunnel-like hallway, surrounded by large-lettered questions in stark black on white: “Is being old good or bad?” “At what age will you be old?” “Are you curious about the future?”

The future looms sooner than I expect, in the yellow simulation room at the end of the tunnel. I strap heavy white metal shoes over my flip-flops and clomp up a set of stairs. The effort of hoisting my weighed-down legs makes this everyday task more arduous. “Aging causes loss of muscle mass,” a sign near the stairs explains, adding that this can lead to decreased strength and speed.

The simulation room is part of the “Dialogue With Time” exhibition at the Israel Children’s Museum in Holon, near Tel Aviv. It is the third in a series of installations created by German social entrepreneur Andreas Heinecke and his wife, Israeli-born exhibit designer Orna Cohen. Their previous works, “Dialogue in the Dark” and “Dialogue in Silence,” introduced visitors to the expe­riences of the blind and the deaf; this exhibit, which the museum says is the first of its kind in the world, zooms in on the elderly.

It’s also an exercise in empathy, a reminder of how aging affects everyone. Israel, like many other countries, is experiencing a “gray” population boom due to higher life expectancy—its 65-and-older population will increase 44 percent by 2020. “We have a definite demographic shift, and the question is how to deal with it when the fear of aging is so big,” says Cohen. “We are not trying to resolve the problem; we are just trying to raise awareness.”

The simulation room—where I unsuccessfully attempt to send a text message with fingers made drastically less nimble by the gardening glove I was prompted to wear—is the only section that addresses diminished capacity. The rest of the exhibit focuses primarily on the concept that old doesn’t have to mean out of commission.

The ten of us in my museum tour group—seven in our 20s or 30s, two in their 40s or 50s, and one gray-haired woman who looks to be in her 70s—file out of the yellow room and meet the man who is to be our guide through the rest of the exhibit: Avi Nimrod, 81, a widower and former pilot. He is one of about 50 current or trainee guides, ages 70-plus, who get paid to help transform the show into what Heinecke calls a platform for encounter.

After playing games meant to tease out our latent age-ism, we enter a room where vignettes are performed by lifelike mannequins. In one, an elderly widower is smitten with a vivacious woman and eventually brings his toothbrush—and, he jokes, his false teeth—to her apartment.

The final scene, which aims to make visitors more attuned to the benefits of spending time with the elderly people in their own lives, is subdued, almost anticlimactic, yet feels the most genuine. We see a mannequin, a woman in a rocking chair, recall the day her washing machine broke down. “It’s not a good time to talk,” she remembers telling her father when he called amid the chaos. That night he was admitted to the hospital, she says. By the time she reached his bedside, he was dead. “Now that I have all the time in the world for him,” she says in her soft, compelling voice, “there’s no more time for me to spend.”

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