By Mary Vespa
Updated June 24, 1985 12:00 PM

I was on the street by the World Trade Center in Manhattan, attempting to cross from one corner to the other,” Pat Moore recalls. “As I began to walk, the light changed. It was terrifying. The traffic was already moving, and I was stuck there with my cane, going as fast as I could.”

Though only 32, Pat Moore knows a lot about how frightening life can be for the elderly. For nearly three and a half years, beginning in May 1979, she made it her business to know by posing as an octogenarian. An industrial designer with a degree from Rochester Institute of Technology, she had always been interested in the problems of older people. When her marriage to a fashion photographer broke up in 1978, she plunged into the study of old age, acquiring master’s degrees in gerontology and psychology at Columbia University. Meanwhile a conversation at a New York City cocktail party with makeup artist Barbara Kelly led to her role as an 85-year-old woman.

The founder, in 1980, of Moore & Associates, a research, design and marketing firm, Moore is now using her undercover experiences to develop new products for senior citizens. In addition, she gives more than 200 lectures a year and raises funds for special projects. She hopes to challenge the business sector to stop its obsession with the youth market and turn its attention to analyzing the growing “mature” market. “It always struck me as ridiculous,” she says, “that at the magic age of around 50, manufacturers and advertisers assume your dollar is no longer green.”

To learn firsthand the travails of the elderly, Moore developed three basic disguises and roles: a wealthy dowager, a middle-income granny and a bag lady. She assumed the disguises while on business trips, visiting 116 cities and towns in 14 states. To create her elderly appearance, Moore had the help of Kelly, who has made up Bill Murray for Saturday Night Live and Dustin Hoffman for Broadway’s Death of a Salesman.

Moore’s transformation took about four hours. She learned first to put on molded jowls, crow’s-feet and bags under her eyes with spirit gum. She next spread on liquid latex, which she dried with a hair dryer while pulling her skin to create wrinkles. (Her face has been left prematurely creased.) Sometimes Moore would use prosthetic material to give herself a humped back. She attached splints to her knees (to simulate stiffness), then wrapped her legs in Ace bandages and covered everything with support hose. (Moore, who lives in a fourth-floor walk-up off Gramercy Park, found that such realism required a 45-minute climb up her stairs.)

To duplicate the effect of arthritis, she taped her fingers and covered them with cotton gloves. To simulate deafness, she plugged her ears. To approximate poor eyesight, she applied Vaseline under contact lenses for a cataract effect. She could play the imposter for 12 hours a day only every four or five days, since it took that long for her skin to recover from the heavy application of makeup.

So thoroughly did Moore lose herself in the role that her artifice began to be her reality. “The fine line that separated the young Pat Moore and the old Pat Moore got very fuzzy,” she admits. Recalls Kelly: “Pat started dressing in dark, matronly clothing and boots that made her look much older. She spoke slower and became reclusive—though she was then only 26.”

To create an elderly personality, Moore drew on memories of a favorite grandmother. “Because I loved listening to my grandparents tell so many stories,” she explains, “it was easy for me to sit and talk about the big-band era.” The eldest daughter of a mathematics teacher and an electrician, she grew up with her two sisters in a Buffalo neighborhood composed largely of senior citizens. “All my friends were old people,” she says.

This helped Moore melt into her role, but with devastating results. Store owners would “almost daily” take advantage of her poor vision by shortchanging her. As a bag lady in Clearwater, Fla., she was stoned by little boys. Exploring “gray ghettos,” she once was attacked by a gang of toughs. “I took a lot of kicks to my back because I was curled up on the ground,” she says. “Now my nerve endings inflame periodically; the backaches I have today are awful.” Her left wrist is constantly painful, the result of a fracture.

“I’ll never be the same,” says Moore of her ordeal. “I can’t walk down the street with the same sense of safety. I really understand how many elderly people become housebound. They’re so afraid of being hurt.”

Surprisingly, Moore rates big cities the best to grow old in because of their transportation and support systems. Being rich helps. She was treated best in her “wealthy” getup. But even in her middle-class garb, she says, store owners were understandably more attentive when she flashed a gold American Express card.

In early 1983 Moore decided to put aside her cover-up and go public. She appeared on the Today show that January. Her exposure has paid off. This October, a book she is co-writing about her experiences, From Time to Time, will be published, and CBS has optioned it for a movie.

Moore has put her painfully learned expertise to work, numbering among her clients AT & T, Johnson & Johnson and Kimberly-Clark. She is developing easier-to-open medicine caps for Merck Sharp & Dohme, and she is creating food packaging for the 3M company. “You hear stories about old people trying to rip open a cereal box with their teeth because they can’t manage it with their fingers. It’s pitiful,” she says. She was also instrumental in marketing a disposable undergarment for those suffering from incontinence.

Moore now ranks as a celeb with senior citizens. Many recognize her and often greet her on the street with “a hug and kiss” and a request for an autograph. Her 68-year-old secretary answers about 300 pieces of mail a month.

Maggie Kuhn, 79, founder of the Gray Panthers, commends Moore for “doing a consciousness-raising job, teaching people that aging is something we all share.” But, adds Kuhn, “this is the damnedest country. It took a young woman to become an old woman, and come back as a young woman, to tell us all what it’s like to be old.”

Moore, who this week plans to marry designer Daniel Formosa, 31, appreciates the irony. “We get hit over the head with age because we are living in a culture that worships youth,” she says. “This is absolutely insane, because there is no alternative: If you’re not aging, you’re dead.”